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The Boston Globe June 24, 2003

Syrian guards hurt in US strike

Iraqis targeted; questions on ID

By Bryan Bender, Globe Correspondent, and Robert Schlesinger, Globe Staff

WASHINGTON -- US special forces crossed into Syria last week in hot pursuit of what they believed were former Iraqi leaders and exchanged fire with Syrian border guards, seriously wounding three of them, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

Details of the episode remained sketchy, and some US officials said the strike could turn out to be a case of mistaken identity.

The US troops, backed by an AC-130 gunship, attacked a convoy of three to seven sport utility vehicles near the western town of Qaim on Wednesday. The convoy was apparently headed toward the Syrian border when the strike occurred, killing an unknown number of people whom American officials believed to be former Ba'ath Party leaders and security forces loyal to Saddam Hussein.

Two defense officials cast doubt yesterday on initial reports that Hussein or his two sons might have been among the targets, but government officials declined to discuss intelligence matters, saying only that ''regime members and leaders'' were believed to be fleeing from a nearby compound for Syria.

Some defense officials also said the intelligence could have been erroneous, which was one reason they were unwilling to divulge many details until they could confirm the identities of those in the convoy.

''We definitely had a lead'' that top leaders were in the convoy, Sergeant Major Lewis Matson, a US Central Command spokesman, said yesterday. ''Sometimes they have not been true. That's part of the reason we are being cautious. No one will ever forget that van of women and children that approached that checkpoint in April,'' he said, referring to an attack in which US soldiers mistakenly killed civilians in Iraq.

An estimated 20 people -- not including the Syrian border guards -- were also detained after the attack, but all of them were swiftly released after it was determined they were not a threat, officials said. The episode could further strain US-Syrian relations at a time when American officials contend some leaders of the former Iraqi regime may have sought refuge in Syria and Islamic militants continue to flow across the frontier to take up arms against US occupation forces.

News of the convoy attack also demonstrates that US forces may have intensified their hunt for Hussein, his sons Uday and Qusay, and other top Iraqi leaders since the June 16 capture of Abid Hamid Mahmud Al-Tikriti, Hussein's personal secretary and cousin, who was found near Tikrit with intelligence information.

''We have Mahmud, and we sure hope he'll be helpful,'' Matson said.

Analysts echoed the same concerns expressed by some US officials over the accuracy of intelligence information.

''They're operating under a mosaic theory, where they're interrogating people, and they're monitoring communications, and they're imaging stuff, and occasionally it fits into a picture,'' said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a Virginia-based defense think tank. ''And when it fits into a picture, they blow it up. And it's not a precise process, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.''

Pentagon officials said an investigation was underway to determine who was killed in the strike, including possible DNA testing to determine if Hussein or his sons were involved.

The Syrian border guards were injured when the special forces soldiers on the ground chased at least one person who attempted to flee the charred vehicles through a border checkpoint, according to defense officials who received secondhand reports from the field about the strike and asked not to be identified. The officials said the Syrians were being given US medical attention and would be repatriated to Syrian authorities.

It was unclear whether the Syrians or Americans fired first, or if the Syrians were trying to help the members of the convoy, which apparently did not stop despite US action. The Syrian government had previously agreed to seal off their border to Iraqi officials wanted by the United States.

''There was some question as to whether or how the individuals on this side of the border were being assisted by others on the other side of the border,'' Matson said. According to newspaper reports published Sunday and yesterday, a Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles was also used in the convoy attack. Some military officials in Washington, however, said yesterday there was no mention of the spy aircraft that can fire missiles by remote control. Most armed drones are operated by the CIA.

One defense official said US and Syrian authorities were in consultation about the strike. Syrian officials did not offer public comment yesterday, and no one could be reached at the Syrian Embassy in Washington. The State Department, meanwhile, directed all inquiries on the strike to Central Command headquarters in Tampa.

One international law specialist said that the incursion into Syrian territory would have little consequence under international law.

''If it's just local penetration, a few miles or kilometers away from a border, it would be legal,'' said David B. Rivkin, a former White House and Justice Department official in the Reagan and first Bush administrations who currently practices law in Washington. ''It's quite common. In fact, one of the more common issues in warfare has been precisely that -- fighting in a border area, hostilities can spill into the next country.''

Pike said the episode demonstrates the risk of coming to blows with countries neighboring Iraq, especially with porous borders that assist fleeing Iraqi leaders or provide passage for Islamic militants.


Copyright 2003, Globe Newspaper Company