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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Secrecy Surrounds Syrian Border

UGER ADDIB, Iraq -- On a desolate panorama of hardtack desert along the Syrian border here, the United States military has cordoned off part of this village, evicted five families whose houses were bombed six days ago and refused to say what is going on.

Two villagers were killed, a young woman, Hakima Khalil, and her infant daughter, Maha, in an aerial assault that began just after 1 a.m. Thursday.

At dusk Tuesday, a convoy of more than 20 military transports arrived with earth-moving equipment and pulled into the circle of Bradley fighting vehicles that guard every approach to this sandy knoll littered with broken masonry and bomb-damaged homes.

"Stop right there," said U.S. Specialist Arthur Myers. "If you take a picture, I will break your camera."

The attack on the village followed a strike by U.S. Special Forces troops on several vehicles near a Syrian border post 8 kilometers miles east of here. U.S. officials described what happened as an operation focusing on a convoy of vehicles believed to be carrying senior officials of Saddam Hussein's government.

It was not clear what they were seeking in this village, however. This stretch of border about 50 miles southwest of the main border crossing point at Qaim is known as a smuggler's haven, and Muger Addib in Arabic means "Wolf's Den." The villagers run a brisk smuggling trade in native sheep.

Since the end of the military campaign, smugglers have also specialized in assisting Iraqi families seeking to leave the country and join relatives abroad across the border. U.S. officials also suspect that former members of Hussein's government have used remote border crossings like this one to escape.

The villagers are from the Shamar tribe, known for its loyalty to Hussein's government. They migrated 35 years ago from Ramadi region west of Baghdad.

Since the attack, families have doubled up and the evicted villagers spend their days trying to see what is going on in their houses, beyond the U.S. sentries, a few hundred yards away. One elder, Daham Haraj, said the villagers wanted to retrieve the money and jewels they kept hidden in their houses.

"If you go and ask them for a glass of water, they wouldn't give it to you," said Hamid Muhammad Abul Fahad, 40, speaking of the soldiers. "We are a village at the end of the world and we don't have Saddam Hussein here. We haven't seen him and we are not harboring him."

The sequence of events that preceded the attack suggests that U.S. officials believed they had achieved an intelligence breakthrough with the June 16 capture of Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti, Hussein's personal secretary.

Officials in Washington, without citing Mahmoud in particular, said they had received information that Hussein or his sons, Uday and Qusay, may have been traveling near the Syrian border.

Separately, a senior official in the Kurdish Democratic Party, Hoshar Zebari, said in an interview in Baghdad that Kurdish security officials had intelligence that Mahmoud had just returned from Syria when he was captured.

And, Zebari added, Mahmoud was carrying several million dollars when captured along with blank Belarussian passports obtained in Syria. He said those discoveries suggested that members of Hussein's household might be preparing to escape, or, perhaps, were creating a diversion in the direction of Syria to cover movement elsewhere.

The attack may have been set in motion by a final piece of intelligence that a convoy of senior members of Hussein's government were traveling near Qaim.

The intelligence reports may have intersected last Wednesday when helicopters appeared here just after 10 p.m. and then wheeled quickly toward the border where they struck the trucks.

The villagers watched and listened to the attack that began late Wednesday night, and said they saw at least two vehicles burning on the horizon. "They first started hitting the Syrian border and then they came at us," Fahad said.

Mahmoud Hamad, 24, was sleeping on a cot outside, when the first missile struck his house and raked his bed with shrapnel. He was recovering from his wounds today at the Qaim General Hospital, 50 miles to the northeast.

Muhammad Hamad, 25, said his wife and daughter were killed instantly by shrapnel from the missile strike.

Today, the desert just inside the Syrian border was littered with the debris of an attack that destroyed three vehicles, a pickup truck, a large transport truck and a tanker similar to those used for carrying water or smuggling petroleum products across this remote frontier to Syria.

U.S. officials have said that five Syrian border guards were wounded in the attack, and that three remain in custody.

Syria has yet to comment.

At the Syrian border post Tuesday, the garrison of about a dozen soldiers went to general quarters when a reporter approached from the Iraqi side, making the passage across a stretch of no-man's land too dangerous for inquiry.