MUGER ADDIB, Iraq, June 24 — On a desolate panorama of hardtack desert along the Syrian border here, the United States military has cordoned off part of this village, evicted five families whose houses were bombed six days ago and refused to say what is going on.
Two villagers were killed, a young woman, Hakima Khalil, and her infant daughter, Maha, in an aerial assault that began just after 1 a.m. Thursday.
At dusk today, a convoy of more than 20 military transports arrived with earth-moving equipment and pulled into the circle of Bradley fighting vehicles that guard every approach to this sandy knoll littered with broken masonry and bomb-damaged homes.
American soldiers walked near the Iraqi village of Muger Addib on Tuesday. The military has sealed off part of the village, which it attacked last week, and will not say what it is doing here. (NYT Photo/Tyler Hicks)
"Stop right there," said Specialist Arthur Myers of New Jersey. "If you take a picture, I will break your camera."
The attack on the village followed a strike by American Special Forces troops on several vehicles near a Syrian border post five miles east of here. American officials in Washington described what happened as an operation focusing on a convoy of vehicles believed to be carrying senior officials of the former government of Saddam Hussein. It was not clear what they were seeking in this village, however. This stretch of border about 50 miles southwest of the main border crossing point at Qaim is known as a smuggler's haven, and Muger Addib in Arabic means "Wolf's Den." The villagers grow wheat and raise sheep by day, but they are also believed at night to run a brisk smuggling trade in native sheep, which fetch a better price in Syria and Lebanon than they do in Iraq.
Since the end of the military campaign that toppled Mr. Hussein's government, smugglers have also specialized in assisting Iraqi families seeking to leave the country and join relatives abroad across the border. American officials also suspect that former members of Mr. Hussein's government have used remote border crossings like this one to escape occupation forces.
The villagers here are from the Shamar tribe, known for its loyalty to Mr. Hussein's government. They migrated here 35 years ago from the Ramadi area just west of Baghdad.
Since the attack, families have doubled up and the evicted villagers spend their days trying to see what is going on in their houses, beyond the American sentries, a few hundred yards away. One elder, Daham Haraj, said the villagers wanted to retrieve the money and jewels they kept hidden in their houses.
"If you go and ask them for a glass of water, they wouldn't give it to you," said Hamid Muhammad Abul Fahad, 40, speaking of the soldiers who have sealed off the knoll where the five houses stand. "We are a village at the end of the world and we don't have Saddam Hussein here. We haven't seen him and we are not harboring him."
Indeed, the landscape here is forbidding, especially on a day like today when a west wind whipped up a sandstorm that forced most of the men to wrap their heads with their kaffiyehs, or head scarves, to blunt the onslaught of sand.
Out to the east, the horizons of the Syrian desert unfold to the same limitless expanse that the ancients traveled. The only signs of modernity are the occasional fresh tracks of American armored vehicles.
The sequence of events that preceded the attack suggests that American officials believed they had achieved an intelligence breakthrough with the capture June 16 of Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti, Mr. Hussein's closest confidante and longtime personal secretary.
Officials in Washington, without citing Mr. Mahmoud in particular, said they had received information that Mr. Hussein or his sons, Uday and Qusay, may have been traveling near the Syrian border.
Separately, a senior official in the Kurdish Democratic Party, Hoshar Zebari, said in an interview in Baghdad that Kurdish security officials had received intelligence that Mr. Mahmoud had just returned from Syria when he was captured.
And, Mr. Zebari added, Mr. Mahmoud was carrying several million dollars when captured along with a cache of blank Belarussian passports obtained in Syria. He said those discoveries suggested that members of Mr. Hussein's household might be preparing to escape, or, perhaps, were creating a diversion in the direction of Syria to cover their movement elsewhere.
The attack here may have been set in motion by a final piece of intelligence that a convoy of senior members of Mr. Hussein's government were traveling in the vicinity of Qaim.
Iraqi women and children, displaced from their homes in the village of Muger Addib, gathered at a home on the edge of the village on Tuesday. Five families whose houses were bombed have been evicted. (NYT Photo/Tyler Hicks)
The intelligence reports may have intersected last Wednesday when helicopters appeared here just after 10 p.m. and then wheeled quickly toward the border where they struck the trucks.
The villagers watched and listened to the attack that began late Wednesday night, and said they saw at least two vehicles burning on the horizon.
"They first started hitting the Syrian border and then they came at us," Mr. Fahad said. "We saw something like a shooting star going through the sky and then it dropped on our village."
Mahmoud Hamad, 24, was sleeping on a cot outside, as is the custom here in the heat of summer, when the first missile struck his house and raked his bed with shrapnel. He was recovering from his wounds today at the Qaim General Hospital, 50 miles to the northeast.
"I can't remember much except that blood was everywhere and I was dizzy," he said.
His brother, Ahmed Hamad, 27, was farther away from the house on another pallet. "I heard it when it hit, and I felt the wind and fire of the blast and then I saw my brother falling down and I ran to him."
Muhammad Hamad, 25, said his wife and daughter were killed instantly by shrapnel from the missile strike.
Today, the desert just inside the Syrian border was littered with the debris of an attack that destroyed three vehicles, a pickup truck, a large transport truck and a tanker similar to those used for carrying water or smuggling petroleum products across this remote frontier to Syria.
A charred AK-47 assault rifle was visible in the wreckage of the pickup truck.
The vehicles destroyed in the desert were typical of those used in the smuggling of sheep, which is a common form of commerce here — a lead pickup with an armed guard, a transport for the sheep and a water tanker needed to water the flock on the long passage across the Syrian desert to market.
American officials have said that five Syrian border guards were wounded in the attack, and that three of them remain in American custody.
They would not say whether the guards were hit by ground fire or from the air. Syria has yet to comment on the incident.
At the Syrian border post today, the garrison of about a dozen soldiers went to general quarters when a reporter approached from the Iraqi side, making the passage across a stretch of no-man's land too dangerous for inquiry.
The arrival of earth-moving equipment here suggested that American military forces may be preparing to set up a base here to guard this section of border.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company