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The firefight, between Army Rangers and Syrian troops along the border with Iraq, was the most serious of the conflicts with President Bashar al-Assad's forces, according to American and Syrian officials.
It illustrated the dangers facing American troops as Washington tries to apply more political and military pressure on a country that President Bush last week labeled one of the "allies of convenience" with Islamic extremists. He also named Iran.
One of Mr. Bush's most senior aides, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that so far American military forces in Iraq had moved right up to the border to cut off the entry of insurgents, but he insisted that they had refrained from going over it.
Increasingly, officials say, Syria is to the Iraq war what Cambodia was in the Vietnam War: a sanctuary for fighters, money and supplies to flow over the border and, ultimately, a place for a shadow struggle.
According to people who have spoken with Special Operations commanders, teams like the Army's Delta Force are well suited for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering inside Syria. They could identify and disrupt the lines of communications, sanctuaries and gathering points used by foreign Arab fighters and Islamist extremists seeking to wage war against American troops in Iraq.
Frankly, if Syria engages US troops in Iraq, the US should simply kill them. They are in fact committing an act of war by doing so.