The Men In The Shadows
Why Special Forces are providing the model for a new kind of war
LOADED, COCKED, AND AIMED
The Green Berets live on what they carry in their dumvees, a humvee altered to accommodate extra fuel, water, and weapons. A hole in the roof is a turret for the sergeant who mans a .50-caliber machine gun or MK-19 grenade launcher. In the open truck bed behind, another sergeant mans a mounted M-240 machine gun. The operators like it because of its long range and minimal kick. Their weaponry is rounded out by each man's two personal guns, several AT-4 antitank missiles, and a sniper rifle--either the SPR, the MK-24, or the Cadillac of sniper guns, the 7.62-mm Stoner. The truck bed is piled full of ammunition and rucksacks. Eight-foot trailers hauled behind the dumvee carry the rest of the gear the operators need to live on--a generator, cots, meals ready to eat, water, tools, medical supplies.
Here in the southern Iraqi desert, the convoy strikes off the highway into the talcum-powder-fine dirt, churning up clouds that swirl around them and clog eyes and ears. When the dust settles, they face a cluster of bombed-out buildings, a destroyed air-defense site inhabited by malarial mosquitoes and biting flies. Southern Iraq looks like the set of the movie Road Warrior, a moonscape of twisted wreckage after years of bombing and man-made drought. On the horizon, the ancient Temple of Ur, near Abraham's birthplace, is the only vestige of civilization. To their surprise, the Green Berets find that Ahmad Chalabi, the prominent expatriate politician, has taken up residence in the base's one intact structure, laying out a Persian carpet in what would become his salon for receiving local sheiks. Shrugging, a Special Forces major sets about his task of equipping, organizing, and training a group of Iraqi soldiers that would become known as the Free Iraqi Fighting Forces.
REELING IN BAD GUYS
It is probably the only guerrilla militia organized and deployed in three days' time. On April 9, the newly minted FIFF launched its first battalion-size operation in the city of Shatrah. "This was no finger drill," said the major, reviewing the day's results. "It was a real mission. . . . We reeled in 15 bad guys, over 200 Milan missiles with all their components, and located several other caches." One A-Team warrant officer agreed, noting that it had taken them three weeks to train Afghans for Operation Anaconda.
The Special Forces' Afghan experience helped them navigate the many complexities they encountered in Iraq. First, many FIFF commanders were trying to promote Chalabi's agenda. But the Special Forces major insisted that the FIFF be employed only in the service of the U.S. military's objectives. They were simple--to give an Iraqi face to the war, to replace a battalion of U.S. soldiers, and to use their local knowledge in the hunt for Iraqi leaders and weapons dumps.
"DON'T SHOOT! THEY'RE OUR GUYS"
The Special Forces major pushed the FIFF north to surrounding towns and cities, under the watchful eye of his A-Teams, as fast as he could. As the regime crumbled, a dangerous vacuum began to open up. Looting and anarchy spread. A generalized power grab had begun. No script had been written for this part of the war, since the conventional forces had bypassed urban areas in their race to Baghdad. Most conventional units didn't know the FIFF even existed. That made the rollout of the new Iraqi militia even dicier, as one A-Team found out. Arriving in Nasir, the team pitched camp in an abandoned school. FIFF guards were posted on its walls and in bunkers by the highway while A-Team members went to reconnoiter the town. As they were searching the pillaged Baath Party headquarters, a barrel-chested arms sergeant called out from the dumvee turret. "Hey, here come the marines! They're going after our guys!" He trained his binoculars on a fast-approaching convoy. The marines piled out of their vehicles and began charging the school. "Hurry, let's go!" the sergeant yelled. The dumvee bounced wildly. Drawing even with the running marines, the A-Team sergeant screamed, "Don't shoot! They're our guys!" A Marine captain looked at him like he was insane and kept running. "They have AKs!" Some of his men flopped down and began assuming shooting positions. "Shoot them, you shoot us!" the A-Team sergeant screamed. "Who are you?" cried the marine. "Special Forces." The marine called off his men just before they began firing.