Posted by Joshua on Thursday, October 22nd, 2009
The Murders at al-Sukariya
On October 26, 2008, U.S. helicopters stormed a farm near the Iraq-Syria border in order to assassinate leading al-Qaeda operative Abu Ghadiya. One year later, the authors report from Syria that the raid may have been botched, and the lives of seven innocent civilians were mistakenly taken instead.
By Reese Erlich and Peter Coyote
Vanity Fair, WEB EXCLUSIVE October 22, 2009
Shells from the air are tearing out chunks of concrete, punching holes through the cinder blocks as if it were paper. The noise of the guns and motors is deafening. Hamid pulls himself along the rutted ground, peers fearfully over the edge of the bank, and slithers away, taking advantage of a lone tree for cover. He does not understand what is happening.
Some of the eight soldiers on the ground move forward and take up positions outside the high walls, but they don’t seem to notice him. The hovering helicopters continue firing, tearing up the ground between him and the farm. “I thought it was safe because they didn’t shoot at me,” Hamid says later. After watching for about 15 minutes, he jumps on his bike to escape but, he says, “that’s when they shot me.” A bullet rips through his right arm, breaking it, mangling the muscles and nerves badly, and knocking him to the ground. Struggling to his feet, he sees the soldiers watching him as they climb into the helicopters and leave. “I was the last one they shot,” he recalls. “No one was shooting at the soldiers,” Hamid continues with certainty. “No one was shooting back.”
…..Larry Johnson, a former C.I.A. analyst …who has spoken to people with knowledge of the raid, says the U.S. was sending a message to the Syrians: “We’ve told you in the past to stop it. Now we’re serious.” He calls the raid “a Jim Croce incident,” referring to the 1970s singer known for the lyrics “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape / You don’t spit into the wind / You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger / And you don’t mess around with Jim.”…
At dusk, Suad al-Khalf sat on the bare floor of the tent while Hassan ran in and out. The weather was temperate and the sides of the tent flapped lightly. Five construction workers got ready to quit for the day: the foreman, Daud Mohammad Abdullah, and his four sons, Ibrahim, Thiab, Awad, and 16-year-old Faisal. At about 4:30 p.m., Ahmad Raka al-Khalifa, a neighbor, walked over to visit with the workers.
The men were laughing and relaxing after a hard day’s work when they heard helicopter engines overhead. Laughter turned to surprise, then panic. The helicopters rolled in, according to eyewitnesses, machine guns blazing away, drilling holes in the iron gate and concrete wall closest to the Euphrates. The machine guns and assault rifles fired so rapidly that the muzzles appeared to be shooting flames.
According to Suad al-Khalf, two helicopters landed inside the walls. (Another witness, Hamid, the mechanic, remembers seeing only one go in.) Dirt was blowing everywhere as soldiers leapt from the bellies of the aircraft. They quickly shot and killed the construction workers and the neighbor. “No one fired back because no one had weapons,” says al-Khalf, who, unaware of the level of carnage, stayed inside the tent and grabbed her son.
A U.S. soldier then entered the tent carrying an assault rifle. He looked at al-Khalf and Hassan and walked out. Another soldier followed moments later. He made a palm-down gesture with his hand—the universal signal for “do not move.” Al-Khalf did not. But the big man with the gun frightened Hassan, and he fled from the tent. Without thinking, his mother followed him outside. It was then that they shot her, and she fell to the ground, like the others lying along the walls……
Once the copters had pulled out for good, the two men ran into the farm, where they were the first to witness the six dead men, the dead teenage boy, and the seriously wounded Suad al-Khalf. Hassan stood above his mother. The police didn’t arrive for about 15 minutes.
“I recognized them,” Muhammad al-Abed says now, speaking of the dead. “All of them were workers here. I knew the father personally, but also knew other members of his family.” He doesn’t know if the Americans took any prisoners or bodies with them. With his mother nearby, Hassan later tells us, “There were many soldiers.” Asked if he knows where his father is, he replies, “He passed away. The Americans shot him.”….
The coroner who administered to the victims, Dr. Aysar al-Fara, is a slight, precise man, wearing a nicely tailored, dark-blue Western suit. His mustache and nails are impeccably trimmed. He stares into the middle distance as he begins a ghastly and meticulous chronicle of the deaths. He speaks in a flat, clinical tone that one often expects from people for whom trauma is a way of life. “Each of the dead received between 10 and 15 bullets in the chest area,” he says. “None received less than 10. Also, each was shot once in the area of the navel.”
He speculates that they were shot by sharpshooters who were “seeking to snap the spine.” U.S.-military sources contacted later have never heard of such a practice. Special-ops troops are instructed to fire at the head and chest. So the stomach wounds remain a mystery. Dr. al-Fara is absolutely sure, however, that “the men were shot to be killed, the woman to be wounded.”
It is time to leave, but we have a last concern about Suad al-Khalf. The doctor who treated her had given her only a 50 percent chance of recovering. But after several operations in Damascus, she survived and returned to her home. When Dr. al-Fara treated her on October 26, she couldn’t explain what had happened. “She was hallucinating,” says Dr. al-Fara. “She kept saying, ‘Go, go, go, go,’ these four words over and over in English.” Those words, we speculate, may have been what the men from the helicopters were shouting as they went about their work…..
In addition, the U.S. never produced any proof of Ghadiya’s death as it had after the assassinations of other high-ranking figures such as al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay. (There are examples, however, in which the U.S. has claimed to have killed terrorists without releasing proof.) There have been no photos, eyewitness accounts, or captured computers, cell phones, or weapons. Furthermore, in a statement few close observers would argue with, Mekdad notes that Syria had nothing to gain from cooperating with groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq. In fact, Syria has cooperated with the U.S. to combat such jihadist groups because they not only threaten Iraq but also have attacked Syria. Just before the raid, in September 2008, Sunni jihadists detonated a car bomb near a major shrine in Syria, killing 17 people and wounding 14 more….
Army special-ops consultant Larry Johnson speculates that the U.S. took the terrorist leader’s body out in a helicopter. “In the case of a high-value target, they would take him back to get a DNA sample,” he says. As for claims by local Syrians to have known all the men, he notes that it wouldn’t be unusual for a terrorist cell to have a cover story…..
The explanation given by anonymous U.S.-government officials is “total bullshit,” exclaims Bob Baer, a C.I.A. field officer in the Middle East for 21 years, whose memoir, See No Evil, served as the basis for the film Syriana. Baer suspects that the intelligence on the raid was botched. “Where’s the body? Where are the documents or the cell phone? If they brought back an al-Qaeda body, why don’t they have something? There’s no conceivable way they would have killed him and not shown it.”
U.S. actions can be explained easily, according to Syrian political analyst Ahmad al-Dulemi. The Iraqi government forwarded inaccurate information about the al-Sukariya farm to U.S. forces, he argues. The U.S. was acting on faulty intelligence and bungled the raid.
Baer confirms that U.S.-military actions are currently carried out with far less diligence than in the past. “It used to be a Delta Force rule that you had to have eyes on your target for 24 hours in advance,” he says. Now “these raids are done in the dark. Since 9/11, you can act on fragmentary reports. If the C.I.A. says it got info from Iraqi sources, that’s enough.”
Congressman Nick Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia who has traveled to the Middle East for 30 years to meet with leaders there, also concludes that the Bush administration mishandled the raid. Syrian civilians “lost their lives in an unfortunate attempt by the previous administration to once again mislead, bully, and isolate a regime,” he says in an interview from Washington. Such attacks across borders have a “disastrous effect on American foreign policy. They alienate civilians. The cowboy diplomacy of the past led America to some of its lowest [public-opinion] ratings around the world.”
At least one Syrian official is convinced that then vice president Dick Cheney and the neoconservative faction in the White House advocated the raid in an effort to derail future U.S.-Syria relations. That might explain Syria’s muted reaction to an attack that was, under international law, an act of war. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mekdad says Syria was in no condition to respond militarily against the much stronger U.S. He suggests that the Bush White House was interested in creating a roadblock for its successor.
“The neocons and their headmaster, Vice President Cheney, wanted to create problems so that a rapprochement between the [Obama] administration and Syria will be made more difficult,” he says. The Syrians decided to take their lumps and bide their time. That calculation may have paid off.
In 2004, the Bush administration had slapped Syria with economic sanctions and, in 2005, withdrawn its ambassador from Damascus. The Obama administration has taken a different tack, having sent four diplomatic and security missions to Syria and having agreed to re-install an ambassador, although no name or date has been announced.
The American public may not learn the full details of the al-Sukariya raid for some time, perhaps not until classified U.S.-government documents are released, years in the future. But the Arab world certainly believes the Syrian version of events, which contributes to growing anti-U.S. anger in the region. The perception that the U.S. launches raids and missile attacks without regard for civilian casualties is widespread in the region…..