U.S. commando units are playing a crucial role in the attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime, operating deep inside Iraq on missions targeting Iraqi leadership and military positions for strikes by American warplanes and cruise missiles, U.S. intelligence sources told NBC News.
Weeks ahead OF the launch of Thursday’s assault on the Iraqi leadership, U.S. special operations forces were working covertly in multiple locations inside Iraq, including at sites on the edges of Baghdad, intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity.
One official said that CIA Special Operations Group agents have been moving “in and out” of the Iraqi capital on a regular basis, liaising with intelligence sources and identifying targets for elimination by American laser-guided bombs.
In their preparations for the attack, hundreds of commandos moved to “hide sites” near key Iraqi military and leadership positions, ready to “paint” targets with lasers that U.S. commanders can use to guide American munitions to their destinations, the officials said.
The use of elite forces in Iraq months before the conflict started is in marked contrast to the 1991 Gulf War, when units were only deployed inside the country in the final days of the five-week air campaign.
Taking a page from the accomplishments of commandos fighting the war on terror in Afghanistan, CIA special operations agents were sent to northern Iraq as early as last summer to start laying the groundwork for a U.S. invasion, officials said.
Tapping the network
In recent months, the CIA’s operations were augmented by special operations forces from the Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Rangers, Green Berets and British SAS commandos. Those groups are the primary forces helping to guide U.S. munitions to Iraqi military and leadership sites.
In addition to marking targets, in recent weeks the commandos tapped into Iraq’s Chinese-built fiber optics network, allowing U.S. intelligence to listen in to military communications, the sources said. Now that the war has started, the fiber optics lines and other Iraqi communications nodes identified by the special units will be destroyed.
Replicating a tactic used to great success in Afghanistan, the CIA agents have been securing the loyalty of Iraqi tribesmen, whom Saddam has kept loyal with payoffs and perks from Baghdad.
By outbidding Saddam, the CIA units have been actively turning the tribal leaders to the American side, the intelligence officials said.
Northern Iraq, an area controlled by minority Kurds opposed to Saddam’s rule, has provided the elite forces with a staging area for operations in territory held by Saddam. The Kurds renovated two old Iraqi airfields to accommodate helicopters and fixed wing aircraft used by the commandos. Battle-hardened Kurdish forces, called pesh merga, or “those who face death,” have been working with the Americans, lending their knowledge of the local terrain and Saddam’s forces, officials said.
Much of the commando operation in northern Iraq will concentrate on Kirkuk, the oil-rich, historically Kurdish city Saddam has controlled by ethnically cleansing more than 100,000 Kurds from the region.
Saddam’s Nebuchanezzar Republican Guard Division based south of Kirkuk would be the most significant military threat to American operations in the north.
NBC’s Fred Francis and MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall are on assignment in Iraq.