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Riot Fears Close U.S. Embassy In Damascus

The U.S. Embassy has closed its doors in Damascus as thousands of people marched in protest against a U.S. raid on a Syrian village.

The embassy said it decided to close because of fears the state-approved protest could turn violent.

Syrians say they are outraged by the October 26 raid on a village near the Iraqi border that Damascus claims killed eight people, including children.

Much remains unclear about what happened in Abu Kamal, 8 kilometers from the Iraq border.

According to Syrian officials, U.S. forces simply attacked the village without provocation. They said the people killed were members of families of builders and a night watchman who were working at a construction site.

Washington has yet to speak publicly about what occurred. But the U.S. media quotes officials as confirming privately that four U.S. helicopters flew into Syria to target a top Al-Qaeda leader operating from the village.

The U.S. sources say troops dismounted from two of the Black Hawks and engaged in a short but fierce firefight with armed men. Among those killed was the raid's target: a Syrian known as Abu Ghadiya.

Abu Ghadiya, also called Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidh, has long been identified by Washington as a top Al-Qaeda figure coordinating the movement of militants and funds into Iraq. In February, the U.S. Treasury identified him as one of four major Al-Qaeda operatives living in Syria.

By following Abu Ghadiya's trail across the border, Washington appears confident that the damage his death will do to Al-Qaeda is worth the outrage in Damascus. The raid is not the first U.S. attack on Syrian soil, but is by far the most visible. Others have been missile strikes or rare cases of crossing the frontier in hot pursuit of insurgents.

In response, the Syrian government approved a mass rally on October 30 outside the U.S. Embassy, bringing thousands of people into the streets of the capital. The U.S. Embassy is closed, with Syrian riot troops ringing it due to fears of violence.

Warning On Safe Havens

Analysts say the U.S. cross-border raid delivers a strong message to Damascus that Washington will not tolerate Al-Qaeda establishing a safe haven in Syria as the group is weakened in Iraq.

"What you have today is a situation where the United States is pulling its forces out of Anbar, out of the west [of Iraq], where Iraqi forces are taking over the counter-Al-Qaeda mission in the area around Mosul, and virtually all the supply to the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq is crossing the Syrian border," says Andrew Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"They don't simply extend to the flow of foreign volunteers, they extend to the flow of Iraqi cadres, trainers, money, equipment -- and this includes, some of it at least, the personnel and equipment used for these large-scale bombings, which Al-Qaeda continues to use throughout Iraq to try to destabilize the country."

Cordesman says Washington has repeatedly signaled to Damascus since 2003, when U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein, that Syria must crack down on the supply lines. But Syria has not responded to Washington's satisfaction.

That is despite reports of partial Syrian cooperation. This week's raid surprised many observers by coming shortly after U.S. commanders praised Syria for reducing the flow of guerrillas into Iraq from 100 per month to 20.

The raid also is seen by some observers as a more general signal from Washington to any government that is slow to crack down on terrorists who threaten U.S. lives.
Syria says eight people, including children, were killed in the raid.

In recent weeks, U.S. forces have stepped up operations against Taliban safe havens in northwestern Pakistan. That includes a helicopter-assisted ground operation in September against the Pakistani village of Angor Adda that killed some 20 people.

U.S. forces have also struck terrorist suspects in Yemen and Somalia since the war on terror began following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

"The New York Times" reported this week that the White House has adopted a legal argument in recent months that cross-border attacks into countries with which the United States is not at war are justifiable as self-defense to protect U.S. forces and interests abroad.

This is in line with, but extends, U.S. President George W. Bush's policy of preemption of attacks on the homeland that was articulated immediately after 9/11.

Concern In Iran

The cross-border raid into Syria is likely to worry Tehran, which Washington accuses of aiding Shi'ite militia groups hostile to U.S. forces in Iraq. It is unclear, however, whether the U.S. administration is prepared to interpret a policy of self-defense broadly enough to risk a major confrontation with Iran, which is a major regional power.

Equally unclear is how far Damascus -- a close ally of Tehran -- will go in confronting Washington over the October 26 raid.

"It is very hard to tell," Cordesman says. "I think Damascus is going to test the waters, see how much of this resonates. It has already tried to deny, rather strangely, that this was a military raid. It has almost talked about this as if the United States randomly sent in four helicopters to attack innocent civilians, whether that is convincing to anybody is something that Damascus is probably watching. But Damascus has also said that it feels it can't deal with the Bush administration but it wants to improve relations with the next administration."

The only thing certain for now is that all sides are proceeding further with caution.

Damascus says it is awaiting an explanation from Washington and Baghdad about the raid before deciding whether to take retaliatory steps.

Baghdad -- trying to balance ties with Washington and Damascus -- says it wants the security deal it is negotiating with the United States to include a ban on using Iraqi territory to attack Iraq's neighbors.

And Washington continues not to speak publicly about the incident.

with agency reports