The Silent Warriors
Special forces are having an outsize impact in Iraq
KHAWR AZ ZUBAYR, IRAQ--The small, gray inflatable boat rounded the prow of a rusty green and white trawler. Crouching low inside were U.S. Navy SEALs and their partners, Special Warfare Combat Crewmen, wearing wetsuits and goggles and packing .45-caliber long-barreled pistols. As they trained their M-4 automatic rifles at the trawler's deck, a second inflatable boat rushed in, its American and Polish crew tossing grappling hooks and rope ladders to the rail. With an Arab linguist shouting instructions at the trawler's cowed Iraqi crew, the special operators stormed the ship to search for mines, weapons, or soldiers. The teams had seized and sunk a trawler loaded with 12 Manta mines just days earlier. This one being clean, they left to hunt for another target.
From this oily channel leading to the gulf port of Umm Qasr, to the western badlands of Iraq, to the outskirts of Baghdad where the battle rages for control of the capital, an estimated 10,000 special operations forces (SOF) are fighting an unseen war. They are training--and fighting alongside--Kurdish peshmerga ("those who face death") who have been battling the Baghdad regime for years. They have routed Ansar al-Islam terrorists linked to al Qaeda in the mountains near Sulaymaniyah. They have hunted for Scud missiles along the Jordanian border, secured airfields for resupply, seized oil terminals and oil fields before they could be destroyed, and taken down an observation post in southern Iraq to blind Iraqis for the war's first hours. President Bush, speaking at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, where their command is located, called them America's "silent warriors." Indeed, the work is both daring and dangerous. Late last week, three special operations troops were killed in a suicide car-bomb attack 120 miles northwest of Baghdad. While the majority of SOF are Americans, including Army Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs, and Air Force special operators, they have been joined by British Special Air Service and Special Boat Service units, and Polish and Australian special forces as well.
The commando action with the most dramatic impact would be the extermination of Saddam Hussein. It is believed that special forces have run high-speed surveillance missions into the heart of Iraq to pinpoint targets, including the regime leadership. But the existence of supersecret forces used for such missions, including Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, is not even officially confirmed. Their best-known accomplishment so far is the storming of a hospital last week in Nasiriyah to free an American prisoner, Pfc. Jessica Lynch (box, Page 30). Some moments of that raid, as well as night-vision video of special forces taking control of an Iraqi dam and a presidential palace, were later released by the military. But otherwise, virtually everything they have done has been kept in the shadows.
Still, U.S. News reporters have had the chance to observe several operations in action. Typically, the forces rely on lightness, speed, surprise, and technology to get the job done. The SEALs and Special Boat Teams operating in the channels leading to Umm Qasr, for instance, boarded 90 vessels in less than one week. They have worked so closely and for so long with their boat-team partners that they effortlessly read nonverbal signals across the channel's choppy waters.
After a week of work, the engine meter on one of the fast boats reads 150 hours of "running time"--out of the 168 hours spent on the whole mission. Tim James, the officer in charge, kneeled and sat on his heels to stretch his thighs, burning with exhaustion from riding the wind-whipped waves at high speed. Nearby, crewmen slept in broad daylight atop their gear in the boat as their commander brushed and flossed his teeth. Their 32-foot SOC-R, another fast boat that virtually skims the water, ran for 36 hours at the uppermost reaches of the channel, buffeted by winds gusting up to hurricane strength. "Tankers broke their moorings and sailed past us," said its hollow-eyed boat captain.
The fast-boat crews aren't the only little-known special forces. The Air Force's special operations units, based in Hurlburt Field, Fla., are tasked with getting the special operators to the fight and keeping them alive. One moonless night, Paul, an Air Force major, piloted his MC-130 to a pitch-black runway in Talil in central Iraq. In the plane's belly sat two humvees with SEALs atop. Garbed in desert camouflage, one listened to music on an MP-3 player. The others slept, prayed, or put on grease paint. Upon landing, the plane's rear door flopped open and they rolled out into the night.
The MC-130 Combat Talon flies as low as helicopters, thanks to terrain-following radar that is even more sophisticated than the special ops Pave Low and Little Bird choppers. It has three basic missions: dropping off and picking up special forces, refueling other SOF aircraft, and resupplying commandos in hostile territory. Paul, the lanky pilot, says the MC-130 "is the most capable penetrating transport aircraft ever built." A screen flickers ghostly green on a top-secret control center, which can spew out an array of electronic countermeasures, chaff, and jamming to thwart detection. An Air Force forward ground air controller aboard, like Paul, says he works so much with other special forces that he feels closer to their services than to his own.
Winning hearts. While the SEALs can lay claim to executing their largest operation ever, the Army special forces are carrying out the widest range of missions. As U.S. troops squeeze Baghdad, special forces are on the scene, setting up positions from which they can spot targets, spy on Iraqi troops, and locate Iraqi leaders. Meanwhile, since the war plan did not call for seizing southern cities, it has fallen to the special forces to organize opponents, win hearts and minds, and conduct their own raids there.
Basra, in southern Iraq, is one such place. Outside Basra, a U.S. News reporter watched the special forces A-teams and civic affairs units work to distinguish friend from foe. Not far from their secret compound are the enemy lines, and a berm does not stop the Fedayeen irregulars from lobbing mortars into their base. While the Iraqi Army has melted into the civilian population, some hard targets present themselves. One night last week, Green Berets and their attached combat controllers called in fire on a tank and three armored personnel carriers. Their night-vision capability, and a special forces AC-130 Spectre gunship, turned the hardware to rubble.
Meanwhile, on the road to Khazir in northern Iraq, a very different operation was underway. Hearts and minds don't need to be won here--but firefights do. On one hillside last week, lying in newly abandoned Iraqi foxholes, small groups of soldiers scanned the horizon through the scopes of their assault rifles. At first glance they were indistinguishable from the peshmerga beside them, wearing the same desert camouflage and passing binoculars between them. But these are what the Kurds call their American "guests." They are special forces soldiers who have trained them and who are fighting by their sides.
Iraqi soldiers withdrew from these positions the night before after days of being bombarded along this front line outside Mosul. It seemed, then, that this would be an easy advance, but it became the first real battle between coalition forces and Iraqis on the northern front.
The attack came without warning. Bullets whistled by, fired by Iraqis who had retreated to a position less than a mile away. Two Americans, pinned down, shot back alongside the peshmerga, while calling for close air support. Half a dozen mortar shells rained on the hillside.
More than half an hour passed, then suddenly, the aggressive roar of F-18 Hornet jets sounded overhead. One swooped in and let loose a bomb that whistled down and pounded into the ground with a burst of fire and a puff of smoke. "Hey, it took a while, but it came," said one American, as loud cheers erupted from the peshmerga. They were shushed, so the radios could be heard. "Anything south is the enemy, over." "Roger, you have Iraqis on the run, two more positions to be taken out." "Every bomb hit target, four vehicles destroyed and 30 personnel killed, over."
As more special forces and peshmerga arrived, the airstrikes continued, pounding Iraqi positions and their trucks speeding around the village ahead. Still, the Iraqis did not give up, and mortar shells continued to explode near the peshmerga and their American guests. During a lull in the fighting, one American had a lunch of tomatoes and bread with the peshmerga. "The peshmerga are awesome. Some have been fighting all their lives, but they share everything they have," he said.
The soldiers stayed in the foxholes all afternoon, calling in strikes. "The Iraqis keep trying to mass for an attack," explained one, sitting in a foxhole surrounded by communications equipment. "Egypt Tango, Egypt Tango, this is Talon, over." The voice on the other side crackled back. "Roger, copy. Four trucks destroyed, 50 KIA, and one mortar position so far."
Then came the counterattack. Iraqi soldiers sneaked through the fields, hoping to encircle and ambush the Americans. Returning fire, the Kurds and Americans seemed at first bewildered by the strength of the Iraqi resistance in the face of nonstop bombardment. Then two special forces soldiers stood to one side and consulted in low voices. One walked away with a no-nonsense stride, as if this would be the end of the enemy. The other called after him, "Have fun storming the castle!"
With Bay Fang
This story appears in the April 14, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.