A Syrian man mourns Monday near the body of a relative who died Sunday in a U.S. attack in Syrian territory.AP photo
WASHINGTON — Bold U.S. raids into Pakistan and Syria show the stark choice the Bush administration is putting to both friends and adversaries in its final weeks: Clamp down on militants and terrorists or we’ll do it for you.
Raids such as the one in Syria on Sunday hold the potential to kill or capture wanted al-Qaida terrorists or other militants, but they also risk killing civilians and angering foreign governments and their citizens.
Selective U.S. military action across the borders of nations friendly and unfriendly reflects increasing willingness to embrace what U.S. commanders consider a last resort: violating the sovereignty of a nation with whom the U.S. is not at war.
It’s a demonstration of overt military strength that the U.S. has been reluctant to display in public for fear it would backfire on U.S. forces or supporters within the governments of the nations whose borders were breached.
Now, senior U.S. officials favor judicious use of the newly aggressive tactics, seeing more upsides than down. They reason that whatever diplomatic damage is done will be mitigated when President Bush leaves office and a new president is inaugurated.
That may work in Syria, where the government has already said it is looking forward to a better relationship with the next U.S. president, said Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In Pakistan, however, special operations raids could box in the new American president by inflaming an already outraged public.
“Public opinion is already very strongly against the U.S. and ‘anti’ any U.S. role or interference,” Cordesman said. “It’s not clear that you are not building up a broad public resistance that will bind the next administration.”
The target of Sunday’s raid in Sukkariyeh, Syria, just over the Iraq border from Husaybah, was a man known as Abu Ghadiyah, the leader of the most prolific network to move foreign fighters associated with al-Qaida into Iraq.
The U.S. operation was precipitated by intelligence that Abu Ghadiyah was planning an imminent attack in Iraq, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press. U.S. intelligence picked up similar reports last spring. The information — not detailed enough to take action on — was followed by the killings of 11 Iraqi policemen just over the border from Abu Ghadiyah’s Syrian compound. He personally led the attack, the official said.
“The trip wire was knowing an attack was imminent, and also being able to pinpoint his location,” the official said.
Abu Ghadiyah, the nickname for Badran Turki Hishan Al Mazidih, was among those killed, a U.S. counterterrorism official confirmed Monday. All the officials spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive intelligence about the raid.
The attack was carried out at 4:45 p.m., timed to coincide with the customary afternoon rest period. A ground attack was chosen over a missile strike to reduce the chances of hurting civilians not associated with Abu Ghadiyah’s network, the official said.
Syria said troops in four helicopters attacked a building and killed eight people, including four children.
The U.S. official confirmed that women and children were at the house, but he said “they were protected at the objective and left behind.” He did not specifically address whether any women and children were among the casualties. He said “several” men were killed and identified them as Abu Ghadiyah’s body guards.
The cross-border action from U.S. positions inside Iraq comes at a touchy time in U.S.-Iraqi relations. The two sides are negotiating an agreement to extend the legal basis for American forces in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31.
Opponents led by Iran worry that a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq is an invitation to the Americans to use Iraq as a staging ground for attacks against its neighbors. The Iraqis insist they will not allow that.
The attack comes at a time when Syria has been working to improve its image in the world. And periodically, U.S. commanders have noted that Damascus has worked harder to clamp down on the use of its country by terrorists.
Bush secretly approved a separate directive three months ago allowing special operations forces to cross the Afghan border to conduct raids inside Pakistan.
Just one such raid has been carried out, according to a senior Pakistan government official. Helicopter-borne U.S. special forces conducted a raid Sept. 3 inside Pakistan. Islamabad has complained bitterly about the move, which it says killed two dozen people, including civilians, and violated its sovereignty.
The raid capped nearly a year of debate among the CIA, U.S. special forces and commanders in Iraq about how to handle the Syrian tributary of the Iraq foreign fighter problem, according to a former intelligence official and a current U.S. military official who deals with Iraq.
The United States has been asking Syria to hand over, capture or kill Abu Ghadiyah for months or years. The U.S. Treasury Department claims he ran a resupply operation on the Syrian border.
Syria rebuffed the U.S. request, saying it was monitoring Abu Ghadiyah’s activities, said two U.S. military officials with direct recent knowledge of U.S. intelligence in western Iraq.
The U.S. also has become frustrated with the use of Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas as a safe haven for militants over the nearly seven years since the Taliban was rousted from Afghanistan for harboring Osama bin Laden.
U.S. forces, including the CIA, continue to conduct missile attacks inside the border region but is doing so in closer coordination with the Pakistan government, a Pakistani official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
On Monday, suspected U.S. missiles killed 20 people at the house of a Taliban commander near the Afghan border, the latest volley in a two-month onslaught on militant bases inside Pakistan, officials said.