Officials Say U.S. Killed an Iraqi in Raid in Syria
WASHINGTON — A raid into Syria on Sunday was carried out by American Special Operations forces who killed an Iraqi militant responsible for running weapons, money and foreign fighters across the border into Iraq, American officials said Monday.
The helicopter-borne attack into Syria was by far the boldest by American commandos in the five years since the United States invaded Iraq and began to condemn Syria’s role in stoking the Iraqi insurgency.
The timing was startling, not least because American officials praised Syria in recent months for its efforts to halt traffic across the border.
But in justifying the attack, American officials said the Bush administration was determined to operate under an expansive definition of self-defense that provided a rationale for strikes on militant targets in sovereign nations without those countries’ consent.
Together with a similar American commando raid into Pakistan more than seven weeks ago, the operation on Sunday appeared to reflect an intensifying effort by the Bush administration to find a way during its waning months to attack militants even beyond the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States is at war.
Administration officials declined to say whether the emerging application of self-defense could lead to strikes against camps inside Iran that have been used to train Shiite “special groups” that have fought with the American military and Iraqi security forces.
American officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the raid said the mission had been mounted rapidly over the weekend on orders from the Central Intelligence Agency when the location of the man suspected of leading an insurgent cell, an Iraqi known as Abu Ghadiya, was confirmed. About two dozen American commandos in specially equipped Black Hawk helicopters swooped into the village of Sukkariyah, six miles from the Iraqi border, just before 5 p.m., and fought a brief gun battle with Abu Ghadiya and several members of his cell, the officials said.
It was unclear whether Abu Ghadiya died near his tent on the battlefield or after he was taken into American custody, one senior American official said.
One United States official described Abu Ghadiya as Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s “most prominent” smuggler of foreign operatives crossing the Syrian border into Iraq, and in February the Treasury Department named him as one of four major figures in that group living in Syria.
The official said Abu Ghadiya was in his late 20s and came from a family of smugglers in Anbar Province, in western Iraq. He was also suspected of having led an attack in May on a police station in western Iraq that killed 11 Iraqi officers, an American official said.
Spokesmen for the Defense Department and the C.I.A. declined to comment on the attack. On Sunday, an American military official had denied that American military helicopters had played a part in the raid.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has attacked terrorism suspects in the ungoverned spaces of countries like Yemen and Somalia. But administration officials said Monday that the strikes in Pakistan and Syria were carried out on the basis of a legal argument that has been refined in recent months to justify strikes by troops and by rockets on militants in countries with which the United States is not at war.
The justification is different from the concept of pre-emption the administration articulated immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, and which was used as the rationale for the invasion of Iraq. While pre-emption was used to justify attacks against governments and their armies, the self-defense argument would justify attacks on insurgents operating on foreign soil that threatened the forces, allies or interests of the United States.
Administration officials pointed Monday to a passage in President Bush’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month as the clearest articulation of this position to date.
“As sovereign states, we have an obligation to govern responsibly, and solve problems before they spill across borders,” Mr. Bush said. “We have an obligation to prevent our territory from being used as a sanctuary for terrorism and proliferation and human trafficking and organized crime.”
In seeking to carry out cross-border missions inside Pakistan and now in Syria, the United States government is expected to make the case that these operations will help protect the lives of American troops. It is not clear how far-reaching the White House may be in seeking to apply the rationale, but several senior American officials expressed hope that it would be embraced by the next president as well.