The Iraqi government has unexpectedly denounced a CIA raid on a compound in a Syrian border village that killed an al-Qa'ida commander who dispatched fighters into Iraq.
"The Iraqi government rejects US aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria," said an Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, in a surprise rebuke to Washington. "The constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighbouring countries."
The raid, the first on Syrian territory by the US since the invasion of Iraq five years ago, highlights the way the US carries out military operations without consulting the Iraqi government. This is humiliating for the Iraqi government and reinforces Iraqi doubts about signing a security pact with the US by the end of the year. The operation on Sunday, in which US helicopters landed 24 special forces troops in Sukkariyeh, five miles inside Syria near the border town of Abu Kamal, was carried out by the CIA according to US officials in Washington. The US soldiers reportedly killed Abu Ghadiyah, the nom de guerre of Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih, who had been denounced by the US for facilitating the "flow of terrorists, weapons and money from Syria to al-Qa'ida in Iraq". His body was flown back to Iraq, officials said.
Syria denied the presence of al-Qa'ida in Sukkariyeh and claimed the dead were local farmers. The Syrian government yesterday ordered the closure of an American school and a US cultural centre in Damascus in retaliation.
Abu Ghadiyah, aided by close family members, had his assets frozen by the US Treasury in February in a directive claiming he was the head of logistics in Syria for al-Qa'ida. The most surprising aspect of the US attack was its timing. Syria has been a conduit for anti-US insurgents since the Sunni Arab uprising against the US occupation started after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
But the Sunni rebellion has largely subsided since 2007 and Syria has become more co-operative in stopping the movement of fighters across the border. The US and Iraqi governments also claim to have succeeded in largely eliminating al-Qa'ida in Iraq in Anbar province, which has a long common border with Syria. Abu Ghadiyah's smuggling activities would have been less significant than in the past. The CIA-led raid into Syrian territory will deepen suspicions in Syria and Jordan that, so long as the US has a military presence in Iraq, it will be used as a launching pad for operations against them. Iran has already made clear that it is against the Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa), negotiated by Iraq and the US over the past eight months. The decision on signing the agreement has divided the Iraqi government, and the cabinet is looking for amendments. In theory Sofa would increase Iraqi control but its critics claim it would formalise the occupation.
US officials are trying to get the pact signed before the UN mandate for the US occupation runs out at the end of the year. The decision on whether or not to sign Sofa has split the Iraqi politicians. The ministers of defence, interior, foreign affairs and finance are in favour; so too are the Kurdish parties. But the Shia religious parties are dubious or against it. The US raid into Syria is likely only to increase those doubts.