WASHINGTON – Information from a former top aide of Saddam Hussein led American commando forces to chase a convoy of suspected Iraqi fugitives near the Iraqi-Syrian border.
And when the shooting ended, there was a scene of devastation: bombed houses, burned-out vehicles and casualties from both sides of the border, including several Syrian border guards.
U.S. officials are disclosing little about the incident and calls to the Syrian Embassy here got no answers. But nearly a week after the incident, U.S. forces Tuesday were still occupying a town where at least part of the attack occurred; they have released some 20 people who were detained, and officials have yet to say whether the operation netted any significant fugitives.
Working partly on information from the highest Iraqi captured so far — Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti (search) — special operations soldiers attacked a convoy of several vehicles in an attempt to stop what they believed were high-level fugitives linked to the fallen Iraqi government — though "not necessarily Saddam," one Defense Department official said.
The special "Task Force 20" (search) commando team was joined in the convoy operation by an AC-130 gunship and other air support, attacking by ground and air along a known escape and smuggling route near the western city of Qaim, one official said.
At some point in the operation, the convoy of a half dozen vehicles was in a compound at the village of Dhib, where they were bombed and an undisclosed number of houses or other buildings were destroyed, officials said.
A few of the vehicles moved out of the compound and were believed to be attempting to head for the Syrian border. They, too, were struck.
Five Syrian border guards were wounded — three later treated by U.S. forces. It was unclear where they had been positioned.
Officials first said the guards had engaged in a firefight with Americans, but later said it was unclear whether they were hit in shooting with ground troops or by an air attack.
Americans may have pursued part of the convoy across the border into Syria, one official said.
None of the Syrians had been returned to their government as of Tuesday, officials said. But about 20 other people apprehended during the operation were released after it was determined they did not pose a threat, a senior defense official said. Officials at the Pentagon said they didn't know whether they were from the convoy or the compound.
The total number killed in the operation was not available, although it did not appear to include Syrians, officials said Tuesday.
All of the officials discussed the incident on condition of not being identified by name.
State Department spokesmen did not return telephone queries Monday asking when casualties among the border guards would be returned to Syria and what its effect on U.S.-Syrian relations was likely to be.
Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker referred questions to the Defense Department. The senior defense official said he knew of no U.S. government contact with Syria on the issue.
U.S.-Syrian relations already had been strained over events in Iraq. Earlier this year, U.S. officials threatened sanctions against Syria because of allegations it harbored fleeing members of Saddam's deposed government and charges that it provided Iraq with military equipment.
The pressure led to speculation that Washington saw Damascus as the next U.S. military target after Iraq, but tensions eased after a May 3 visit to Damascus by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Syrian President Bashar Assad later said his government had closed its border. He cited strong tribal connections between the two countries, however, and noted the vast desert areas on either side of the 300-mile Iraqi-Syrian border.
There were multiple reports over the weekend that Mahmud, captured a week ago, had told U.S. interrogators Saddam and his two sons survived the war, and at least the sons had escaped to Syria. Other reports said they were forced to return to Iraq. The claims could not be verified.
Some two dozen from the most-wanted list, and a number from another list of 200 other fugitives, have been taken into U.S. custody since the war to disarm Saddam ended.
A distant cousin of Saddam, Mahmud, 46, was often photographed standing behind Saddam. He was described by the U.S. Central Command as Saddam's national security adviser and senior bodyguard.