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A raid into Syria on Sunday was conducted by U.S. Special Operations forces who killed an Iraqi militant responsible for smuggling weapons, money and foreign fighters across the border into Iraq, U.S. officials said Monday.

The helicopter-borne attack into Syria was by far the boldest by U.S. commandos in the five years since the United States invaded Iraq and began to condemn Syria’s role in stoking the Iraqi insurgency. The timing was startling, not least because U.S. officials had praised Syria in recent months for its efforts to halt traffic across the border.

In justifying the attack, U.S. officials said the Bush administration was determined to operate under an expansive definition of self-defense that provided a rationale for strikes on militant targets in sovereign nations without those countries’ consent.

Together with a similar U.S. commando raid into Pakistan seven weeks ago, the operation on Sunday appeared to reflect an intensifying effort by the White House to find a way during the administration’s waning months to attack militants even beyond the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan. Administration officials declined to say whether the emerging application of self-defense could lead to strikes against camps inside Iran that have been used to train Shiite “Special Groups” that have fought against the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces.

U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the raid into Syria said the mission had been mounted rapidly over the weekend on orders from the Central Intelligence Agency when the location of the suspected leader of the insurgent group, an Iraqi known as Abu Ghadiya, was confirmed.

About two dozen U.S. commandos in specially equipped Black Hawk helicopters swooped into the Syrian village of Sukkariyeh near the Iraqi border just before 5 p.m., and fought a brief gunbattle with several militants, including Ghadiya, the officials said.

It was unclear whether Ghadiya died near his tent on the battlefield or after he was taken into U.S. custody, one senior U.S. official said.

One U.S. official described Ghadiya as al-Qaida in Mesopotamia’s “most prominent” smuggler of foreign operatives crossing the Syrian border into Iraq, and in February the Treasury Department named him as one of four major figures in that group who were living in Syria.