The United States mounted a rare cross-border raid into Syria to kill the head of a smuggling network feeding arms and foreign fighters to Iraq, a US official said Monday, signaling a more aggressive approach to insurgent sanctuaries.
The official identified the man targeted in Sunday's raid as Abu Ghadiya, describing him as "one of the most prominent foreign fighter facilitators in the region."
"The operation was successful," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He is believed to have been killed."
The official provided few details about the raid itself, but did not dispute Syrian accounts that helicopter-borne troops assaulted a site in the village of Al-Sukkiraya, eight kilometers (five miles) from the border.
The official Syrian press said eight civilians, including four children, were killed in the raid. Syrian state television showed a construction site with bloodstains on the ground, and bodies in a morgue.
The Syrian toll could not be independently verified, and White House and Pentagon officials would not comment.
US cross-border raids into Syria have been extremely rare, if not unprecedented, despite tension and occasional clashes over the years along the long open border between Iraq and Syria.
The raid was also striking in that it came with little more than a week to go before the US presidential elections.
But the US official suggested the timing was due to the fleeting nature of the target. "Look, when you've got an opportunity, an important one, you take it," the official said.
"That's what the American people would expect, particularly when it comes to foreign fighters going into Iraq, threatening our forces," the official said.
It came less than a week after the capture in Husaybah, Iraq of a weapons smuggler associated with Abu Ghadiya.
The raid signaled that the United States is moving to the kind of aggressive tactics against insurgent sanctuaries along Iraq's border with Syria that it has been using with increasing intensity in Pakistan's tribal border areas.
Missile strikes by US drones in particular have escalated there over the past three months despite a potential backlash in Pakistan, a pivotal US ally that controls the flow of US military supplies into Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials said the latest missile strike on Sunday killed 16 people, including Haji Omar Khan, a lieutenant of veteran Afghan Taliban chieftain and former anti-Soviet fighter Jalaluddin Haqqani.
Syria has long been seen here as a persistent obstacle to US attempts to stem the flow of foreign fighters.
"The raid was probably intended to take out terrorists responsible for recent actions in Iraq, as well as to serve notice that there is not sanctuary in Syria," said Jeff White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.
"The Syrian government is pledging to defend its territory, but will probably opt to avoid a clash unless raids become too frequent and embarrassing," he said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, without commenting directly on the raid, said Syria had taken "positive steps" to play a more constructive role in the region but that "there's still a ways to go."
The flow of foreign fighters into Iraq has slowed amid improvements in the overall security situation,
But Major General John Kelly, the US commander in western Iraq, told reporters Thursday that Iraqi intelligence believes that "Al-Qaeda operatives and others operate, live pretty openly on the Syrian side."
"And periodically, we know that they try to come across," he said.
The most serious recent incident was a May 2 surprise attack by Al-Qaeda fighters who killed 11 Iraqi police, beheading some of them, he said.
"That did a lot to shake up the border and to shake up the police and to shake up the border guard. And at that point, they got very serious," he said.
"Syria is problematic for me, but more importantly for the Iraqis, because it doesn't seem that there's much being done on the other side of the border to assist this country, in terms of maintaining the border and the integrity of, you know, Iraqi sovereignty," he said.