WASHINGTON -- Well before allied ground units swept into Iraq, U.S. commando teams were waging a clandestine war deep inside Iraqi territory, Pentagon officials say.
["It was turning into a special-operations theme park," one source told the Associated Press.]
In operations that still remain partly cloaked in secrecy, special-operations forces tracked Iraqi armored units from behind enemy lines and hunted for Scud missile launchers.
Infiltrated into Iraq at night by aircraft, the Special Forces teams gathered intelligence about the movement of Iraqi forces north and south of the Euphrates River.
Hiding in the desert during daylight and conducting missions at night, other commandos helped coordinate air strikes against Scud launchers by shining special laser beams on them so the missiles could be precisely targeted by U.S. aircraft.
U.S. and Arab Special Forces also landed on the Kuwaiti coast as the land campaign began, linking up with the Kuwaiti underground and helping the allies retake Kuwait City, one U.S. military official said.
U.S. Special Forces operations were barely mentioned during the six-week-long gulf war, as military briefers chronicled the destruction of the Iraqi military by more conventional air, sea and land power.
Much is still not known about the commando operations, including what casualties the Special Forces may have suffered and whether any of their missions ended in failure.
But with defeat of the Iraqi military, some of the secrecy about these operations is lifting. Military officials, however, still refuse to discuss some activities publicly, like the hunt for Scud missile launchers.
What is learned about the operations will have an important bearing on the future training and financing of commando operations, and on the Special Operations Command.
The command was established by Congress to coordinate the services' disparate Special Forces operations under a single headquarters, following lawmakers' complaints that the forces were the bureaucratic orphans of the armed services.
Many experts have emphasized the role Special Forces can play in "low-intensity conflicts," or brush-fire conflicts in the Third World. But the gulf role shows the use of commando operations in large wars, particularly when bad weather and enemy attempts at deception create problems for U.S. military planners.
The U.S. Special Forces include a wide variety of military units, such as Army Green Berets and Navy Seals (an acronym for sea, air and land). Other members include psychological-warfare experts, search-and-rescue teams and linguists.