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U.S. Troops Crossed Syrian Border in Hunt for Hussein

Americans destroyed a convoy believed to be carrying leaders of the former Iraqi regime. Three Syrian border guards were wounded.

June 24, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. special operations troops entered Syria in pursuit of a convoy believed to be carrying former Iraqi regime leaders last week and wounded three Syrian border guards in a firefight, senior defense officials said Monday.

The clash with the Syrians occurred as U.S. aircraft or commandos on the ground crossed the frontier as they closed in on the convoy. The incursion into Syrian territory underscored the risks the Bush administration is willing to take in its stepped-up hunt for ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons, whom defense officials described as potential targets of the action.

AC-130 gunships, other fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters destroyed the six-vehicle convoy near the Iraqi city of Qaim, a senior defense official said on condition of anonymity. Qaim is a border town in Iraq's western desert.

American scientists will gather DNA "if appropriate" to determine if remains found at the scene of the strike match Hussein's DNA, a second Pentagon official said. The official added that the Defense Department has no details about the fate or identities of Iraqis in the convoy.

Pentagon officials said five Syrians were being held by U.S. forces and that three of them received medical treatment. U.S. forces plan to turn the Syrians over to their government. The Americans detained about 20 others during the incident, who were later freed, Pentagon officials said.

Wednesday's assault targeted Iraqi "regime leadership," but the intelligence apparently was unclear on whether Hussein or either of his sons, Uday and Qusai, were in the convoy.

One U.S. official said the Central Intelligence Agency was not aware of any information indicating that they were. Nor, he said, was the intelligence community asked to provide samples that it holds of Hussein's DNA to compare with remains from the convoy. Most of the information about the strike has come from the Defense Department, which has its own intelligence operation.

"I can confirm for you that there were military operations against a leadership target or targets," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said. "And this should be seen in keeping with the ongoing military effort in Iraq to bring justice to people who we believe are associated with the regime or are leaders in the regime."

Three senior senators visiting postwar Iraq said Monday that it is crucial that the U.S. learn soon what has become of Hussein and his sons.

"There are Iraqis who believe he's going to return. There are people who are involved in the sabotage we've already reported, as well as attacks on Americans, who feel the war is not over," Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) told ABC News. Lugar was touring Iraq with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.). "He is, in his absence, in effect, still able to be intimidating," Biden said of Hussein.

President Bush and other U.S. officials have blamed Hussein loyalists for attacks on allied forces, Iraqi infrastructure and Iraqi civilians since the regime melted away as U.S. forces marched into Baghdad on April 9. The attacks have slowed reconstruction efforts.

But the U.S. does not want the search for Hussein to widen the conflict. Officials refused Monday to discuss the implications of the incursion into Syrian territory and would give no details about how far troops thrust into Syria, how long they stayed or how they got into the firefight.

The administration has already rankled Syrian leaders by accusing them of allowing senior Iraqi leaders to pass into their country along smuggling routes. Syria offered a muted response. Imad Mustapha, deputy ambassador at the Syrian Embassy in Washington, told CNN he hoped that the use of force against Syrians was not a policy "endorsed by either country."

"We hope they will be returned very soon," he said of the captured and wounded Syrians.

The incident may worsen relations between Washington and Damascus when the United States needs Syrian cooperation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and in capturing Iraqi leaders and Al Qaeda suspects, said Murhaf Jouejati, a Syria expert at George Washington University and the Middle East Institute in Washington.

The Syrians have shared intelligence with the United States about Al Qaeda suspects, and they have turned away some fleeing Iraqi officials, he said. "Damascus would probably rethink how far it will go" to help the Americans, who have become more unpopular since the Iraq war, Jouejati said. "Damascus cannot ignore public sentiment."

By crossing into Syria and wounding Syrian border guards, he said, "the U.S. appears to be even more aggressive than the region knows it to be -- and that's not good for the U.S."

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