DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria decided on Tuesday to close an American school and a cultural center in Damascus, in an apparent response to a U.S. military raid that the authorities said killed eight civilians.
The move marks a further deterioration in relations between the United States and Syria, which are already strained by U.S. charges that Damascus is failing to do enough to stop militants from entering Iraq to attack its forces.
Syria has expressed outrage at Sunday’s helicopter raid on a village near the Iraqi border, calling it an act of “terrorist aggression.” Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said Syria would defend itself if such an attack were repeated.
The United States has refused to publicly confirm U.S. involvement in the raid, in which residents and Syrian officials say U.S. troops landed by helicopter.
But a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the raid was believed to have killed a main al Qaeda operative who had helped smuggle foreign fighters into Iraq.
“What they are saying is unjustified. I deny it totally,” Moualem told Reuters in London.
Syrian Culture Minister Riad Agha said the U.S. school and cultural center would remain closed indefinitely.
“We were waiting for the United States to present us with superior culture, knowledge and technology but instead they presented us with the corpses of our children on the street,” he told Reuters Television.
“The Americans claim that they fight terrorism, but they are terrorism itself,” Agha said.
The U.S. embassy on Monday warned Americans “that unforeseen events or circumstances may occur that could cause the U.S. Embassy in Damascus to close to the public for an unspecified period of time.”
Syria is on a U.S. list of states that support terrorism, and is under a host of U.S. trade sanctions over its support for the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Washington recalled its ambassador to Syria following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005.
General David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Iraq, said this month that the flow of fighters from Syria had fallen to 10 or 20 a month from a peak of 160.
Syria has asked the U.N. secretary general and the president of the Security Council to take action to prevent a repeat of the U.S. attack, Syria’s U.N. envoy said.
Syria’s official SANA news agency said the cabinet, angry at an initial Iraqi reaction that appeared to justify the attack, also decided to postpone a Syrian-Iraqi bilateral committee meeting which was scheduled for November 12- November 13 in Baghdad.
Iraq’s government on Tuesday denounced the U.S. action in an unusual rebuke of Washington, more than 24 hours after the raid.
“The Iraqi government rejects U.S. aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria,” spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. France and Russia also condemned the attack.
Moualem, who on Monday denounced Iraq’s initial description of the raid as targeting insurgents across the border, welcomed Iraq’s latest statement: “I think they start to see the fact(s) and (are) going in the right direction.”
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London, Mariam Karouny in Baghdad; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Jon Boyle
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