U.S. military helicopters struck a network of foreign fighters in Syria, a U.S. military official said Sunday, killing eight people and earning recrimination from Damascus, which condemned the raid as "serious aggression."
The official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the special forces action within Syrian territory close to the Iraqi border, was meant to send a message. The Americans have been unable to shut the network down in the area because Syria was out of the military's reach.
"We are taking matters into our own hands," the official said.
During funerals on Monday, angry residents shouted anti-American slogans and carried banners reading: "Down with Bush and the American enemy."
The attack came just days after the commander of U.S. forces in western Iraq said American troops were redoubling efforts to secure the Syrian border, which he called an "uncontrolled" gateway for fighters entering Iraq.
Ninety percent of foreign fighters enter Iraq through Syria, according to U.S. intelligence estimates. Foreign fighters often enter Iraq in order to bring cash to Al Qaeda in Iraq's chief. They also are deadly — trained in bomb-making and willing to sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks.
A senior U.S. military intelligence official said that in July only about 20 foreign fighters were entering the country each month, down 50 percent from six months earlier, and just a fifth of the estimated 100 foreign fighters who were infiltrating Iraq a year ago.
The raid occurred at a sensitive time in U.S.-Iraqi relations as the two sides are negotiating an agreement that would extend the legal basis for American forces in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31.
A Syrian government statement said the helicopters attacked the Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal, five miles inside the Syrian border. Four helicopters attacked a civilian building under construction shortly before sundown and fired on workers inside, the statement said.
The government said civilians were among the dead, including four children.
A resident of the nearby village of Hwijeh said some of the helicopters landed and troops exited the aircraft and fired on a building. He said the aircraft flew along the Euphrates River into the area of farms and several brick factories. The witness spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information,
Syria's Foreign Ministry said it summoned the charges d'affaires of the United States and Iraq to protest against the strike.
"Syria condemns this aggression and holds the American forces responsible for this aggression and all its repercussions. Syria also calls on the Iraqi government to shoulder its responsibilities and launch and immediate investigation into this serious violation and prevent the use of Iraqi territory for aggression against Syria," the government statement said.
Senior State Department officials wouldn't confirm whether the U.S. struck inside Syrian territory but said U.S. Charge D'Affaires Maura Connelly did meet with Syrian officials to hear their version of events.
Some precedent does exist for this kind of strike across the border which could suggest U.S. Special Operations forces were asked to carry out the strike to send a signal to Damascus.
On Sept 2 U.S. Special Operations forces crossed into Pakistan's tribal areas in a public strike designed to send a signal to the Pakistani Army and government that it would no longer tolerate bases being allowed in their countries to send militants to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The Pakistan strike was a one-time event that military sources told FOX News won't likely be used in the near future because "the Pakistanis got the message."
Such operations are meant to be blatant and designed to be seen and to send a message. They also likely require the approval of the president. The White House, however, declined to offer comment on the Syrian charge.
The area targeted is near the Iraqi border city of Qaim, which had been a major crossing point for fighters, weapons and money coming into Iraq to fuel the Sunni insurgency.
Iraqi insurgents seized Qaim in April 2005, forcing U.S. Marines to recapture the town the following month in heavy fighting. The area became secure only after Sunni tribes in Anbar turned against Al Qaeda in late 2006 and joined forces with the Americans.
Iraqi travelers making their way home across the border reported hearing many explosions Sunday, said Farhan al-Mahalawi, mayor of Qaim.
The U.S. military officials who spoke to the AP said Syria's border has been difficult to patrol as foreign fighters — mainly from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East — are aided by Al Qaeda-supporting and pro-Baathist members of the Syrian military.
"The one piece of the puzzle we have not been showing success on is the nexus in Syria," the official said speaking of other areas of assistance in Iraq and neighboring countries.
On Thursday, U.S. Maj. Gen. John Kelly said Iraq's western borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan were fairly tight as a result of good policing by security forces in those countries but that Syria was a "different story."
"The Syrian side is, I guess, uncontrolled by their side," Kelly said. "We still have a certain level of foreign fighter movement."
He added that the U.S. was helping construct a sand berm and ditches along the border.
"There hasn't been much, in the way of a physical barrier, along that border for years," Kelly said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem accused the United States earlier this year of not giving his country the equipment needed to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq. He said Washington feared Syria could use such equipment against Israel.
Though Syria has long been a destabilizing country in the Middle East, in recent months, Damascus has been trying to soften its image.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has pursued indirect peace talks with Israel, mediated by Turkey and says he wants direct talks next year. Syria also has agreed to establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon, a that has been destabilized by Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists.
The U.S. military in Baghdad did not immediately respond to a request for comment after Sunday's raid.
FOX News' Jennifer Griffin, Nina Donaghy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.