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Syria Mum On U.S. Attack

U.S. soldiers ask a vehicle to approach a checkpoint near Fallujah, 80 kms (50 miles) west of Baghdad Iraq, Sunday June 15, 2003.
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Syria was characteristically silent Tuesday about a U.S. attack on an Iraqi convoy along its border that left Syrian guards wounded and in American hands. There was no official comment and state-run media did not mention the clash even after news of it broke throughout the world.

Analysts said the government, often slow to react, was carefully weighing its response given the sensitivity of U.S.-Syrian relations and would likely try to settle the issue quietly through diplomatic channels.

"Such incidents are harmful to Syrian-American relations. ... Given the strain in relations, the Syrian government would want to verify all the facts before commenting on the reports," said Haitham Kilani, a retired Syrian general and former diplomat.

In last Wednesday's operation, U.S. commandos backed by air support attacked a convoy of vehicles near the Syrian-Iraqi border. The soldiers, working partly on information obtained from a captured former confidant of Saddam Hussein, believed former top Iraqi officials were fleeing to Syria in the convoy.

Five Syrian border guards were wounded — three later treated by U.S. forces. It was unclear where they had been positioned. U.S. officials first said the guards had engaged in a fire fight with Americans, but later said it was unclear whether they were hit in shooting with ground troops or by an air attack.

Americans may have pursued part of the convoy across the border into Syria, one U.S. official said. None of the Syrians had been returned to their government as of Tuesday.

The incident was first reported in recent days by Arab satellite stations and the U.S. media and was on the front-page of most newspapers across the Arab world Tuesday.

But in Syria, newspapers, TV and radio — all of which are state-controlled — did not mention the violence. Instead, Syria's four dailies led with news of attacks targeting U.S. forces in Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian violence and President Bashar Assad's meetings a day earlier.

The silence was typical of Syria's authoritarian government, which suppresses sensitive news — often for days — until officials have determined a stance.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Damascus referred The Associated Press to Syrian authorities and U.S. Central Command for comment. Syrian authorities, however, could not be reached for comment and telephone calls to the Information Ministry went unanswered.

In Washington, State Department spokesmen did not return telephone queries Monday asking what the effect on U.S.-Syrian relations was likely to be.

"Syria does not want a confrontation with the United States and realizes that the situation is critical," said Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a Syrian political analyst. He said Syria was trying to build common ground with the U.S. and will seek to downplay the border incident rather than inflame the situation by going public with its criticism.

"I expect the Syrian government to protest the U.S. actions through diplomatic channels without necessarily publicizing it," said Shueibi, who is close to the Syrian government.

U.S.-Syrian relations already had been strained over events in Iraq. Earlier this year, U.S. officials threatened sanctions against Syria because of allegations it harbored fleeing members of Saddam's deposed government and provided Iraq with military equipment. U.S. officials also accused Syria of trying to stockpile weapons of mass destruction and of allowing Arabs to cross its territory into Iraq to fight alongside Saddam's forces.

Syria denied all those accusations, but also said it was difficult to stop traffic of people or goods across the border. In April, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bouthayna Shabaan acknowledged: "We can't watch every meter on the border."

Assad has also cited strong tribal connections between the two countries and noted the vast desert areas on either side of the 310-mile Syria-Iraq border. Only areas close to official crossing points are fenced. Toward the north, the Tigris River provides a natural barrier. People cross on foot or on donkeys or in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

The litany of U.S. accusations led to speculation that Washington saw Damascus as the next U.S. military target after Iraq, but tensions eased after a May visit to Damascus by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.