U.S. force created to hunt down Hussein, bin Laden

Covert commando unit seeks key terrorists

November 07, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The top American military commander for the Middle East has created a covert commando force to hunt Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and key terrorists throughout the region, according to Pentagon and military officials.

The new Special Operations organization is designed to act with greater speed on intelligence tips about "high-value targets" and not be contained within the borders where American conventional forces are operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen. John P. Abizaid, who commands all American forces in the strategic crescent from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, decided during the summer to disband two separate Special Operations missions, Task Force 5 in Afghanistan and Task Force 20 in Iraq, officials said.

Military officers say a broader, regional mission was given to the new task force, which has become one of the Pentagon's most highly classified and closely watched operations.

Much about the force, which is commanded by an Air Force brigadier general, remains classified, and Pentagon officials declined to discuss the rules under which the new task force operates throughout the region, nor whether its actions might require permission from a national government to operate in its territory.

Military officers say that focusing the intelligence and the elite Special Operations firepower within one organization, called Task Force 121, streamlines the effort to use information on these targets and mount an attack.

The new, more flexible force has shown results, according to Pentagon officials and military officers, as Task Force 121 has gotten close to Hussein - but officials declined to give details.

The decision to create Task Force 121 was prompted by several factors, according to Pentagon and military officials.

Senior Bush administration officials are frustrated that Hussein remains on the loose and exerts a powerful and dangerous influence in Iraq. At a minimum, officials say, his survival is inspiring attacks on American troops and Iraqi security forces; some officials even believe that he is playing a role in coordinating and directing the violence by his loyalists.

"Capturing Saddam Hussein or killing him would be very important," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week during a dinner speech in Washington. "So we do need to catch him, and I think we will."

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