WASHINGTON — U.S. commandos crossing into Syria in an unprecedented raid this weekend killed a senior Al Qaeda associate accused of funneling fighters, weapons and cash to the insurgency in Iraq, U.S. officials familiar with the operation said Monday.
Abu Ghadiyah, the chief of a Syrian smuggling network who was killed in the controversial operation Sunday, was "one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, facilitators of foreign fighters going into Iraq for Al Qaeda," a senior U.S. official said.
The raid was the latest sign that the U.S. is now willing to mount attacks in sovereign nations in pursuit of insurgent groups operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those who support them. Last month, U.S. special operations forces carried out a similar raid in the tribal border region of Pakistan, drawing loud criticism from the Pakistani public and senior government officials in Islamabad, the capital.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said the U.S. committed "criminal and terrorist aggression" by conducting a raid in which seven civilians died, including three children, a woman and a fisherman.
Two U.S. helicopters flew about five miles into Syria, he said, with one landing at a farm while the second provided cover. A villager told the Associated Press he saw at least two men taken into custody by U.S. forces and whisked away by helicopter. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he feared for his life.
U.S. officials did not say how many people died in the raid.
Abu Ghadiyah, an Iraqi native believed to be in his late 20s, has for several years been a key figure in the flow of foreign fighters and weapons into Iraq, American officials said.
"He comes from a family of smugglers," said the senior U.S. official. "He seems to have turned the family business toward the movement of terrorists, explosives, weapons, etc., into Iraq."
That official, along with others, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the operation.
Other than reporting Abu Ghadiyah's death, U.S. officials offered few details about the raid. Pentagon officials declined to comment. The rationale for using commandos was unclear.
Since the terrorist attacks on America in 2001, the United States has carried out dozens of missile strikes, mostly in Pakistan, but also in Yemen and elsewhere, aimed at killing Al Qaeda operatives. However, almost all of those operations have relied on CIA-operated Predator drones firing Hellfire antitank missiles.
The use of U.S. soldiers carries significantly greater risk and often leads to diplomatic strain, as has been the case with Pakistan.
U.S. counter-terrorism experts described Abu Ghadiyah, who is from Anbar province in western Iraq, as the head of a successful terrorist financial network supporting Iraq's Sunni Arab-led insurgency and a close associate of Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders.
"He's the classic example of a terrorist facilitator and financier," said Matthew Levitt, who from 2005 to early 2007 helped oversee a U.S. government crackdown on Abu Ghadiyah's financial network while deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department.
However, Abu Ghadiyah's death is unlikely to decimate the network because of its strong funding streams and because other members, including a brother, have been active, said Levitt, now with the Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington-based think tank.
The Treasury Department had previously imposed financial sanctions on Abu Ghadiyah and family members, saying they facilitated and controlled the flow of money, weapons, terrorists and other resources through Syria to Iraq.
The effectiveness of such financial enforcement actions has been questioned. The actions target militants and those providing financial or material support, freezing any known assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibiting U.S. firms and individuals from doing business with them.
U.S. officials said Abu Ghadiyah, a nickname for Badran Turki Hishan Mazidih, was appointed by former Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi to be the group's Syrian commander for logistics in 2004. After Zarqawi's death in 2006, Abu Ghadiyah began working for the new leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub Masri, according to U.S. officials.
Abu Ghadiyah provided and arranged false passports, weapons, guides, safe houses and allowances to foreign terrorists preparing to enter Iraq, Treasury officials said.
U.S. officials maintain that Syria has long functioned as a hub for terrorist financing in Iraq, coordinating the movement of recruits and money between cells in Europe and Ansar al Islam training camps in northern Iraq.
In Baghdad, the Shiite Muslim-led Iraqi government said it wanted good ties with Syria but that Damascus needed to do more to stop fighters from slipping across its borders.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh described the region targeted by the Americans as the "scene for many terrorist activities of the last few months," including the killing of 13 policemen in an Iraqi border village in Anbar province. Staunch Syrian ally Iran, which holds enormous sway over the Baghdad government and opposes the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, condemned the U.S. operation.
"We condemn any attack which leads to the killing of innocents and civilians," Foreign Ministry official Hassan Qashqavi told reporters in Tehran.
Times staff writers Ned Parker and Saif Hameed in Baghdad, Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and Julian E. Barnes in Washington and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.