Special forces take on risky, complex role

Troops free injured POW, attack Hussein palaces

War in Iraq

April 06, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - In the largest covert military campaign in recent history, more than 9,000 special operations forces are conducting some of the riskiest missions of the war in Iraq, working in nearly every corner of the country and penetrating even the streets of Baghdad.

Some of their missions date to before the official start of the war, March 19, and others haven't been disclosed. The Pentagon has released brief, carefully edited film clips of some: attacks on one of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's private palaces and the rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, for example. Others are discussed only in terse and guarded words.

Whether these missions have involved organizing Kurdish militia in rugged northern Iraq or scouting for suspected Scud missile launchers in the vacant west, senior Pentagon and military officials say, the largely invisible campaign is remarkable for its breadth and complexity.

All the U.S. military services have been harnessed together with a select but diverse group of allies, and information from the spies, analysts, surveillance planes and satellites of the intelligence agencies has been linked more directly than ever before to commandos on the ground.

The daring rescue of Lynch is the most prominent example of this complexity. As it unfolded, Marine Corps artillery created a diversion, while Army Rangers seized the perimeter of the hospital where she was held, and Navy SEALs pulled her out on a stretcher. Air Force AC-130 gunships were on call to bring their withering cannon fire into play if the rescuers ran into trouble.

U.S. intelligence helped choreograph the intricate mission. When an Iraqi informant disclosed the wounded prisoner's location, U.S. intelligence officers quickly found the foreign contractor who had built the hospital and within hours acquired blueprints that helped the small team of Navy commandos enter and escape without casualties.

In a statement yesterday from his headquarters in the region, Brig. Gen. Gary L. Harrell, commander of allied special operations forces for the war with Iraq, said these units "are doing things that have never been done on such a large scale and have produced phenomenal results. We are achieving much in this war to liberate Iraq, and the coalition is getting plenty of bang for the buck from SOF."

Special operations forces from the United States, Britain and Australia have fought running firefights in the empty deserts of western Iraq to seize an important airstrip, knock out suspected missile sites, smash command headquarters that could launch chemical attacks and interdict weapons smuggled across the border from Syria.

Tiny numbers of Army special forces, the Green Berets, showed up in northern Iraq even before the war began elsewhere in the country. Their numbers were so small - only six A Teams of a dozen men each, operating in split units of six soldiers to cover more territory - that commanders laughed at early news reports of their northern "front."

Special forces soldiers assigned to a unit called Task Force Viking rallied Kurdish fighters and spotted targets for Air Force and Navy attack jets to hit Iraqi positions as well as camps of terrorists suspected of links to al-Qaida.

With the arrival of unconventional warriors by the score once the war began in earnest, special forces soldiers cleared the way for the largest military parachute landing since World War II, when the 173rd Airborne Brigade dropped in to protect northern oil fields and hold the line against numerically superior Iraqi forces.

In the south, Polish special operations teams have joined allied efforts to prevent the demolition of oil wells and petroleum plants - including a possible attempt to blast a terminal to flood the northern Persian Gulf with flammable crude oil.

Commando teams also scored a major victory when they seized the Haditha Dam, which intelligence officers warned might be blown by retreating Iraqi forces to flood a large swath of the Euphrates River, slowing one avenue for allies to advance.

Some of the most secret missions have been within Baghdad, where special operations forces and CIA teams have hunted leaders of the governing Baath Party.

These furtive teams are creeping in larger numbers toward central Baghdad, where they plan to set up forward operating stations from which they can find targets inside the capital, gather information on Iraqi troop movements and coordinate Iraqi opposition groups' actions.

In southern Iraq and around Baghdad, special operations forces have conducted some of their riskiest missions, such as the Lynch rescue, and demonstrated their ability to pivot quickly and attack unexpected threats on the battlefield.

When paramilitary forces in cities such as Nasiriyah and Najaf attacked Army supply convoys and slowed the advance toward Baghdad, special operations units were called in for classic covert counterterrorism work.

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