Syria hardens stance after U.S. strike

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Syria threatened Wednesday to stop cooperating with the U.S. and Baghdad on security along its Iraqi border if there are more American raids on Syrian territory like the weekend attack that killed eight people.

The government also demanded Washington apologize for Sunday's cross-border helicopter strike by American special forces, which U.S. military officials said killed a top al-Qaida in Iraq operative who was about to conduct an attack in Iraq.

Syria's order for the closure of an American school and cultural center and an embassy warning to be vigilant raised concerns among Americans living in Damascus. A huge protest against the raid was called for today in Damascus. While Americans have generally been welcomed in Syria, protests in the past have turned violent against U.S. and European targets.

Deputy foreign minister Fayssal Mekdad said Syria wants assurances that Iraqi territory will not be used again to raid Syria.

"We have demanded that an investigation be conducted and that Iraq not be used for attacks against Syria. Otherwise, this would torpedo all agreements reached during the Iraq neighbors' meetings and bilateral agreements," he said in an interview.

Iraq also demanded Wednesday that a crucial security deal under discussion with the U.S. must include a ban on American troops using Iraqi territory to attack neighboring countries.

Though Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a destabilizing country in the Middle East, attacks on its territory are rare and Damascus has been trying in recent months to change its image and end years of global seclusion.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has pursued indirect peace talks with Israel and says he is open to direct talk as early as next year. Syria also has agreed to establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon -- a country it used to dominate -- for the first time in their history.

But the U.S. still accuses Syria of doing too little to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq. Syria says it is doing all it can to safeguard the long, porous border.

Despite its opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Syria has moved to improve relations with Baghdad, sending an ambassador earlier this month for the first time in 25 years.

Mekdad demanded the U.S. and Iraq apologize for the attack and asked for American compensation.

"What is required of the American government is to confess to this aggression and not be cowardly," he said.

There has been no formal acknowledgment of the raid from the United States. But U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the target was Badran Turki al-Mazidih, a top al-Qaida in Iraq figure who operated a network of smuggling fighters across the border. The Iraqi national also goes by the name Abu Ghadiyah.

Mekdad rejected the U.S. reports and insisted all those killed were Syrians.

"The allegation that this person was killed is a false claim. Therefore, a search for him by world intelligence agencies, including Syria's, should continue," he said.

With tensions between the U.S. and Syria on the rise, the U.S. Embassy advised Americans to avoid demonstrations and review their personal security. Thursday's government-sanctioned protest was expected to draw tens of thousands.

"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," said the warning posted on the embassy's website.

Despite the warning, some Americans living in Syria said they were not too worried.

"I feel that it might be tough for me to say that I am an American, for a while, but I don't have any concerns for my personal safety," said Kate Alberswerth, a 24-year-old New York native who is studying Arabic in Damascus.

Though authorities generally keep Syria tightly controlled, violence at protests occasionally has erupted in the past.

In 1998, small groups trashed the U.S. ambassador's residence and entered the American and British cultural centers in Damascus to protest U.S.-British airstrikes on Iraq. In 2006, thousands protesting newspaper caricatures of Islam's Prophet Muhammad burned the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus.

On Tuesday, Syria's government announced it was ordering the closure of an American community school and the U.S. cultural center in Damascus, but both institution were open Wednesday.

In Washington, the State Department said Syria officially asked the United States on Wednesday to close the American Cultural Center immediately and the American school by Nov. 6.

"We are looking at how to respond," spokesman Robert Wood said. In the meantime, he added, "we expect the Syrian government to provide adequate security for the buildings in which the American Cultural Center and Damascus Community School are housed."