Israelis Insist Bombed Syrian Terror Camp Was Still Operating

A suspected Islamic Jihad (search) training camp in Syria, hit in an Israeli airstrike, was almost empty because its forces were out on maneuvers, Israel's defense minister told a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, according to a government official.

And in Lebanon, a top cleric in the Shiite Muslim world accused the United States of conspiring with Israel to strike Syria and urged Arabs to revive an economic boycott of the Jewish state.

In the pre-dawn raid Sunday, Israeli warplanes bombed the Ein Saheb camp about 15 miles northwest of the Syrian capital of Damascus, the first Israeli attack deep inside Syria since the 1973 Mideast war.

One person was wounded in the raid, Syrian officials said. Officials and residents who live near the base said it had been abandoned for years.

The airstrike came in retaliation for a Palestinian homicide bombing attack on a restaurant in the northern Israeli city of Haifa (search) on Saturday that killed 19 Israelis and was claimed by the Islamic Jihad.

Israel charged that Syria was partly responsible for the bombing, since Islamic Jihad had offices in Damascus and Syria supports the group. Syria has said it closed the offices of extremist Palestinian groups.

In a statement after the attack, the Israeli military said Syria "is a country which supports terrorism" and that the Israeli decision to attack was "based on its right to self defense," indicating the possibility of further such operations. The United States expressed its support for the Israeli attack.

Israel said the targeted base was used for weapons training by Islamic Jihad and other pro-Palestinian militant groups under Syrian supervision and with Iranian funding. The Palestinian group denied that it has bases in Syria.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet that the base was still operational, and most of the camp's occupants were out on training exercises at the time of the attack, the government official said. Mofaz said only a few administrative workers were left behind.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, could not say if the strike was deliberately timed for when the camp was empty.

The official said the decision to hit the camp was made by the Cabinet during a Sept. 11 meeting called to decide on a response to two homicide bombings that killed 15 Israelis two days earlier.

More than 400 Israelis have been killed in 103 terror bombings in three years of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Most of the bombings were carried out by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

In Beirut, meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah claimed the bombing raid in Syria had been planned in "American and Israeli circles" a long time ago, and that Israel waited for the "right political time" to strike after receiving the "American green light."

"Field facts and political data after the aggression (on Syria) indicate that Israel was not alone in planning and coordinating the aggression, and that the U.S. administration was a real partner with it," Fadlallah said.

U.S. officials say Israel did not inform Washington in advance of its retaliatory strike, though President Bush said Israel's airstrike was part of an "essential" campaign to defend the country against terrorism.

Fadlallah, 68, enjoys wide respect among Shiites in the Arab world and is the top religious authority for Lebanon's 1.2 million Shiites. His rank of grand ayatollah is the highest a Shiite cleric can attain.

During the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90, Fadlallah was linked to the militant group Hezbollah (search), which kidnapped Westerners and bombed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Subsequently, Fadlallah moved away from Hezbollah.