WASHINGTON — A CIA-led raid on a compound in eastern Syria killed an al Qaida in Iraq commander who oversaw the smuggling into Iraq of foreign fighters whose attacks claimed thousands of Iraqi and American lives, three U.S. officials said Monday.
The body of Badran Turki Hishan al Mazidih, an Iraqi national who used the nom de guerre Abu Ghadiya, was flown out of Syria on a U.S. helicopter at the end of the operation Sunday by CIA paramilitary officers and special forces, one U.S. official said.
"It was a successful operation," a second U.S. official told McClatchy. "The bottom line: This was a significant blow to the foreign fighter pipeline between Syria and Iraq."
A senior U.S. military officer said the raid was launched after human and technical intelligence confirmed that al Mazidih was present at the compound close to Syria's border with Iraq. "The situation finally presented itself," he said.
The three U.S. officials, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because the operation was classified, declined to reveal other details of the raid. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
The senior military officer said that U.S. intelligence had been tracking al Mazidih for some time, and that "the more we learned about him and how he works" the higher he rose on the U.S. most-wanted list.
"He is the guy who produced the most prolific of the foreign fighters networks," said the first U.S. official, adding that the extremists he smuggled into Iraq were responsible for attacks that "killed thousands of Iraqis and our own U.S. forces."
On Feb. 28, the Treasury Department announced a freeze on any U.S. assets belonging to al Mazidih and three of his associates, charging that they were smuggling "money, weapons, terrorists, and other resources through Syria to al Qaida in Iraq, including to (al Qaida) commanders."
The Treasury Department announcement identified al Mazidih as a Sunni Muslim who was born in the late 1970s in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and was a lieutenant of al Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006. He was believed to be living in the Syrian town of Zabadani.
"Former al Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi appointed Badran (al Mazidih) as the group's Syrian commander for logistics in 2004," the Treasury said. "After Zarqawi's death, Badran began working for the new AQI leader, Abu Ayyub al Masri. As of late-September 2006, Badran took orders directly from Masri, or through a deputy.
"Badran obtained false passports for foreign terrorists, provided passports, weapons, guides, safe houses, and allowances to foreign terrorists in Syria and those preparing to cross the border into Iraq," it said. "As of the spring of 2007, Badran facilitated the movement of AQI operatives into Iraq via the Syrian border. Badran also directed another Syria-based AQI facilitator to provide safe haven and supplies to foreign fighters," the Treasury said. "This AQI facilitator, working directly for Badran, facilitated the movement of foreign fighters primarily from Gulf countries, through Syria into Iraq."
The Bush administration, which for years has expressed frustration over what it charges have been Syria's lackluster efforts to stop foreign Islamic fighters from crossing into Iraq, refused to publicly acknowledge the operation.
It wasn't immediately clear whether an order that President Bush signed in July allowing U.S. commandos from Afghanistan to attack a suspected terrorist base in Pakistan also authorized cross-border operations in other countries.
Pentagon officials were tight-lipped about the operation. But they were quick to defend the decision to cross the border, with one saying that if nations that sponsor terrorist networks won't go after them, "we will."
The raid into Syria on Sunday has ignited a major diplomatic storm, with Iran joining in Syria's condemnation of the U.S.
The Syrian government charged that eight civilians, including four children, died in what it described as a daylight attack on al Sukkari farm in eastern Syria by U.S. forces that flew across the border from Iraq in four helicopters.
"The Americans do it in the daylight. This means it was not a mistake. It is by blunt determination," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al Moallem charged Monday at a news conference in London. "For that, we consider this criminal and terrorist aggression."
The Syrian Foreign Ministry Monday summoned Maura Connelly, the ranking U.S. diplomat in Damascus, to receive an official protest, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
The Iraqi government defended the raid. Government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh said that Syria had refused to hand over foreign fighters who'd taken refuge there after killing 13 Iraqi border guards.
However, al Dabbagh said, a proposed accord governing the status of U.S. forces in Iraq "will limit this type of operation. It will limit the United States from using Iraqi land to attack others."