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Profile: Washington Post Reports U.S Special Forces Troops are Already Working Inside Iraq

All Things Considered: February 13, 2003

U.S. Special Ops Enter Iraq



LYNN NEARY, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Bush told troops in Florida today, if war with Iraq should come, America will act deliberately, decisively and victoriously. Administration officials have repeated that the president has not yet decided whether to order a war, but all the elements for military action are, nevertheless, falling into place. Thousands of additional US troops are arriving each day in the region around Iraq. And now, there's a report that some special operations troops are already on the ground behind Iraqi lines. From the Pentagon, NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN reporting:

The first confirmation of a US military presence in Iraq came two weeks ago when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Richard Myers, said there was a small number of US forces in northern Iraq. Defense officials said those US troops were operating in Kurdish-controlled areas outside the reach of the Iraqi army. Their mission: to link up with Kurdish rebel forces and begin setting up airfields and other operational bases. Today, The Washington Post reported that US special operations forces are actually in various parts of Iraq, with some already hunting for weapons sites. One aim would be to prevent the Iraqis from launching a missile attack, like the ones carried out with Scuds in 1991. The Post reported that the activity of the special operations troops amounts to the initial ground phase of an Iraq war.

A senior Defense official confirms that the activity of special US forces inside Iraq has extended beyond Kurdish-controlled areas, though he says the US presence inside Iraq is, quote, "not as significant," unquote, as portrayed in The Post article. He would not elaborate.

It is no surprise that a US engagement in Iraq would begin with special operating forces. That's the way the war in Afghanistan began in the fall of 2001. In fact, the 1991 Gulf War also began with special ground operations even before the start of the bombing campaign. Retired Major General Robert Scales wrote the official Army history of the war.

Major General ROBERT SCALES: In the period prior to the beginning of the campaign, these forces were used to do several things. Number one, most importantly, find the Scuds. Secondly, to determine what the Iraqi army was really doing. You know, it's one thing to count tanks on the front lines. It's something else to get a sense of what the Iraqi army was all about.

GJELTEN: In the 1991 Gulf War, US troops did not link up with rebel forces. This time around, the United States would be likely to work in the north with Kurdish groups and in the south with Iraqi Shiites. Establishing those contacts early will be a key mission of special US forces.

Another new use of Special Forces in a second Gulf War would be to secure the Iraqi oil fields, even before bombing begins. That could mean the first military action in Iraq would be on the ground, not in the air. But Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College, says he expects any such engagement would be minimal. US military commanders, Scales says, may not want to begin a war in Iraq with small, stealthy steps.

Maj. Gen. SCALES: Once the campaign starts, the military will do all it can to do one of two things. Number one is to set the enemy in place, and secondly, to psychologically intimidate him, and to do it principally with firepower in the opening days of the campaign. The only way you can do that is to apply what Colin Powell used to call the principle of overwhelming force. And so, I think once the actual campaign begins, everybody's going to know about it.

GJELTEN: Pentagon officials are extremely reluctant to discuss upcoming operations. In the fall of 2001, when the news was leaked that special US forces were on the ground in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was outraged. And when asked at a Senate hearing today about The Washington Post story, Rumsfeld launched another attack on leaks and leakers.

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): I think they're disgraceful. They're unprofessional. They're dangerous. They put people's lives at risk. I would also add that I think it's the obligation of people who find people leaking to tell responsible authorities because folks that do it and put people's lives at risk ought to be in jail.

GJELTEN: In fact, the Pentagon has become increasingly open about the US military buildup around Iraq. Defense officials say reports of growing US combat strength put pressure on Saddam Hussein. The news that US troops may already be on his territory might just add to that pressure. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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