A firefight in the mountains
Operation Viking Hammer was truly one for the record books
Masters of Chaos, by U.S. News Senior Writer Linda Robinson, tells the stories of the men who fight the nation's murky wars in the world's far corners. In Iraq, the Pentagon's special operations forces were critical to the capture of most of the top leaders of Saddam Hussein's regime, and they led two of three major battlefronts in the war to liberate Iraq. In one of them, in northern Iraq, Army Special Forces soldiers faced down 13 Iraqi divisions and attacked a camp believed to be harboring al Qaeda terrorists and other foreign jihadists, as well as a shadowy figure named Abu Musab Zarqawi. That battle, Operation Viking Hammer, turned out to be one of the most intense conflicts Special Forces have fought since Vietnam. Excerpts:
There was something old-fashioned about the sight. In the waning dark, the special operators girded for battle alongside the Kurdish peshmerga fighters who had known almost nothing but fighting in their entire lives. This would be an infantry battle, fought by men on foot, with few high-tech tools and none of the heavy tanks that had come to define modern war. The leader of the six-man Special Forces team was a young captain, 29, a college graduate with a degree in chemical engineering, which, to his mother's great regret, he had never quite gotten around to using. The captain's commander had already warned him they would get little air support.
At 7:30 a.m. the team moved out, with more than a thousand Kurds who walked, rode, and trotted over the open plain toward the Sargat Valley. After two firefights and an airstrike by Navy F/A-18s that answered their call, they captured the village of Gulp. The mosque there was intact, but, as the Kurds had claimed, it contained sandbagged fighting positions and a command post. The soldiers also found a suicide vest rigged with explosives and a gas mask. About three hundred Kurds split off to the south, while the rest continued into the heart of the territory controlled by Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group associated with al Qaeda and with Abu Musab Zarqawi, who in the violent aftermath of the war would become the most wanted terrorist in Iraq.
Under fire. Just outside the village of Sargat, the valley widened into a bowl. The captain's team sergeant was known universally as "Grit." He was 36, experienced, aggressive, an outspoken commando with 13 years in the Special Forces, including Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and a host of secret missions under his belt. Grit rode his sergeants hard, but they knew he would be their best friend when things started getting hot. Almost as soon as Grit and the unit's medic entered the bowl, they came under intense machine-gun fire from the surrounding mountains. The Ansar fighters, it appeared, had dug in around Sargat to mount their defense. Grit looked around for cover, but the land was as open as a golf course. To the right was a broad field divided by rows of low rock walls barely 3 feet high.