The New York Times
June 28, 2003

Pentagon Delays Releasing 5 Syrians Hurt in U.S. Raid


WASHINGTON, June 27 _ The Defense Department has delayed the release of five Syrian border guards wounded last week in an American attack on an Iraqi convoy near the Syrian border, American officials said today.

This delay has come despite objections from Syria, the United States State Department and even American military officers on the ground, the officials said.

A State Department official said the Syrians could be freed as early as this weekend. But another administration official said that the State Department had wanted the Syrians handed over earlier this week, and that department officials believed the delay could harm relations with Syria.

Administration officials attributed the delay to civilians at the Pentagon who wanted the guards to be questioned more extensively. An official said the delay did not seem to be based on hard evidence that the Syrian guards had assisted the Iraqi convoy that was the target of the American attack.

According to Defense Department officials, the Pentagon has told the United States Central Command, which is in charge of American forces in Iraq, to avoid releasing the Syrian border guards until now. The Central Command has been ready to release the Syrians since Tuesday, the officials said. They said the defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, and his top aides wanted American forces on the ground to provide a detailed and convincing account of the attack that absolves Syria of any role in helping the convoy.

A Pentagon spokesman, Larry Di Rita, said in an interview tonight that the Defense Department had recently decided to free the Syrians. But he said bureaucratic delays at the Pentagon as well as the department's desire to sort out the facts of the attack from commanders in the field had held up their release.

"There may be people who are frustrated, but this was a complex operation with a lot of unusual aspects, and it has taken time to sort through it all," Mr. Di Rita said.

The Pentagon has yet to provide anything more than the sketchiest outline of the June 18 attack, in which helicopters, AC-130 gunships and ground troops, backed by Predator drones, struck a housing compound in a village not far from the Syrian border as wePentagon Delays Releasing 5 Syr.ems ll as the Iraqi convoy at a crossing point.

American officials have said the attack, carried out by Task Force 20, a Special Operations force, was based on information that the convoy was involved in an operation linked to fugitive Iraqi leaders. But they have not said whether they found anything to confirm their suspicions. A Defense Department official insisted the delay was not aimed at punishing the Syrian government, which the United States accused of allowing foreign fighters and weaponry to cross into Iraq during the war.

Mr. Di Rita told reporters that all five Syrians had been wounded in the American attack _ three serious enough to be taken to a hospital in Baghdad _ but that they were now together, recovering from their wounds. "It is our intention for them to go back to Syria," he said.

He declined to say how the Syrians had been wounded or whether American troops crossed into Syrian territory during the attack. Administration officials have said at least one vehicle destroyed in the raid was on the Syrian side of the border.

The Syrian protest was lodged by its foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa, who met in Damascus on June 19 with Elizabeth Dibble, the deputy chief of mission at the United States Embassy there.

In Syria's first public comment on the matter, the official Syrian news agency reported Wednesday that Syria was demanding "an explanation from the U.S. government" as well as "the return of the wounded soldiers for treatment in Syria in order to avoid any misunderstanding that might lead to an escalation neither side wants."

Most of the estimated 20 Iraqis detained in the in the raid have been released, the American officials said. Mr. Di Rita said today that the American authorities had so far determined that one Iraqi was killed, but he said it was possible that other Iraqis had been killed as well.

Pentagon officials, who alluded to the secret culture of the Special Operations unit, whose members include commandos from the Army's Delta ForcPentagon Delays Releasing 5 Syr.ems e, said they were having a hard time getting detailed reports from field commanders about exactly what had happened. They said they still could not say exactly who had been in the convoy.

A senior Defense Department official said there had been indications that Iraqis in the convoy were heading toward Syria and were communicating with people on the Syrian side of the border. The convoy was detected by American intelligence on June 18 just as reports of the capture of a top lieutenant to Saddam Hussein were becoming public, the official said. American commanders ordered the raid, he said, out of concern that the convoys might be carrying Iraqi fugitives worried about being betrayed by the lieutenant, Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti.

In a diplomatic communiqu‚ that is to be issued at the time of the transfer, the United States will emphasize to Syria its obligation to adhere to its promises to interdict Iraqi fugitives, an administration official said. But the official said a draft version of the communiqu‚ did not suggest that Syria did anything wrong in the convoy incident.

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