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TASK FORCE BLACK (Chapter 1)Mission Paradoxical
Early in April 2003 an RAF Chinook flew through the darkness towards Baghdad. It had set out from a remote airstrip in western Iraq and was heading for the city’s airport. The pilots, highly trained special forces aircrew, scanned the land below through night-vision goggles, trying hard to keep low while racing over a desert so featureless that those who misjudged their height could easily fly into the ground.
BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) was the objective for one of the US armoured brigades that had sped up from Kuwait. But although the armour had reached it, the place was far from secure. Mortar rounds dropped in as the capital of Iraq tottered between decades of authoritarian rule and its uncertain future. The US 3rd Division’s race to the capital had been part of the overt military campaign. It came up from the south, accompanied by dozens of embedded reporters. The RAF Chinook, on the other hand, was arriving from a different point of the compass and had been part of an effort that was rarely talked about publicly.
A few minutes out from their destination, the passengers in the British helicopter started to glimpse the sprawl below. Tracer fire from heavy machine guns snaked into the sky, fires were visible across the city and the desert too. Disbanded Republican Guards, Fedayeen Ba’athist irregulars, and the criminals let flooding out of the jails were vying for the streets, turning the city into a cauldron of violence.
The Chinook came thumping over the apron, its twin rotors producing a huge cloud of dust as it came close to the ground. Taxiing to a halt, the passengers glimpsed more signs of America’s eviction of Saddam Hussein. A couple of shot-up Iraqi Airways aircraft, one a Boeing 727 with its tail jutting awkwardly into the air could be seen in the darkness. As one of the early British arrivals recalls, ‘The airport was a defensive perimeter under blackout conditions, with people in shellscrapes and Bradleys in defensive positions.’
The Americans were taking Baghdad. It wasn’t a matter of marching straight in but a process of probing attacks. The airport had already served as the launching point for several thunder runs. These were strong armoured reconnaissance missions to test the mettle of those who had vowed to turn the city into a new Stalingrad. Although many Iraqis emerged to take pot shots at the passing tanks, the level of resistance was far less than the Americans, who had planned for 120 days of fighting, had feared. But as the Iraqi capacity for organised violence ebbed away, disorder was breaking out. Well-to-do businessmen were hauled from their cars and dispatched with a shot to the head by those who wanted their wheels. Looters carried off the contents of museums, Ba’ath party offices and even hospitals. The settling of scores was beginning too: between those who had been oppressed and the overlords who had trodden them down without mercy. The Sunni minority, and in particular members of Saddam’s tribe, the Tikritis, braced themselves for payback from the Shia majority and the Kurds too. Too many had been tortured, bombed or killed for the thing to pass without bloodletting.
Out of the British Chinook stepped a group of officers with a handful of civilians and some well-armed SAS troops. One of the civilians on board, a young MI6 officer who had not been to war before, questioned whether the machine-gun fire they had seen had been evidence of celebrations. ‘That’s one celebration you don’t want to be on the end of,’ quipped a special forces veteran.
Among the party was Brigadier Graeme Lamb, Director of Special Forces (DSF). Lean and obsessively fit for a man of forty-nine, Lamb had started his military career in the Queen’s Own Highlanders. The product of a Spartan Scottish boarding school, he had been reared to shun the rat race and crave adrenalin. He had commanded a squadron in the SAS and later, his regiment of Highlanders. Having experienced command at these levels, Lamb’s ambition was almost spent. Friends say he never thought of himself as a general, and had assumed that he would leave the army as a colonel. But Lamb’s superiors had other ideas. They had detected that, with his reputation for toughness, easy way with soldiers and special-forces mystique, he was a man whose services needed to be retained. He was one of the few people in the army with the self-confidence, as well as the respect of the old sweats of the SAS, to carry off the job of Director of Special Forces. The brigadier was given to blasphemous plain speaking, and his dismissal of overcomplicated ideas as ‘bollocks’ made some think of him as anti-intellectual. But as those who knew Lamb would attest, what he always sought was clarity, robustness and the avoidance of bullshit.
Not long after his appointment as DSF, the world had been shaken by al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Summoned to a weekend meeting to brief Tony Blair at Chequers, Lamb surprised the Prime Minister by turning up wearing Bart Simpson socks. As Blair listened, his eyes occasionally turned to the brigadier’s ankles. Lamb laid out the ways in which the UK special forces might support the American effort in Afghanistan swiftly and effectively. The briefing carried the same message as his socks: ‘no problemo’. He had made his mark with the Prime Minister, whose own world view had been altered dramatically by 9/11. Although the invasion of Iraq would involve much larger conventional forces than the toppling of the Taleban, that early meeting at Chequers had defined a relationship; Blair would take a personal interest in special forces throughout the Iraq campaign.
As DSF, Lamb had overall responsibility for the various regiments comprising Britain’s military elite: the regular and two reserve regiments of Special Air Service; the Royal Marines Special Boat Service; a specialist surveillance unit; and the signallers who supported these forces on operations. The overthrow of Saddam had involved a big military operation of ‘shock and awe’ air strikes, divisions racing to Baghdad and the thunder runs that had sealed the city’s fate. Britain’s contribution, exceeding forty thousand servicemen and women, had taken southern Iraq, including the ancient port city of Basra. But Brigadier Lamb’s role in this business was part of a different war – the mobilisation of hundreds of special forces troops for a secret campaign codenamed Operation ROW.
In essence Operation ROW was Britain’s part of a larger Coalition effort designed to take large parts of the west and north of the country. This would pin down several Iraqi divisions, stopping Saddam either reinforcing his effort against the main invasion, from the south, or thickening Baghdad’s defences. The mission of the US, UK and Australian special operators moving in from the west and north was thus to take on entire Iraqi divisions by applying a level of force out of all proportion to their numbers, a task they took on with alacrity. The seizure of large tracts of Iraq – perhaps one third of the country – bordering Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey by two special operations task forces totalling a couple of thousand men required them to advance with relentless aggression. With the offensive about to start, and a couple of weeks before his own arrival in Baghdad, Lamb had sent a final message to the UK special forces about to enter battle. Urging them forward, he signed off, ‘Remember, the faint-hearted never fucked a pig!’ This soldierly exhortation became something of a catchphrase among the special operators.
Milling about at Baghdad airport, the members of D Squadron of the SAS exchanged greetings with Lamb and the others who had come in on the Chinook. It was a chance to hear news of other elements of the covert offensive. The troopers who had flown in were just a few dozen who had set off from another Middle Eastern country on 19 March. A few of their D Squadron mates were down south as part of an SAS and intelligence team that had been detached to support the advance of the UK’s 1st Armoured Division. This team infiltrated the city of Basra, where they brought in strikes against the local Ba’athist leadership. Apart from that small band, however, the majority of Britain’s special forces had been part of joint Coalition special ops task forces that were supposed to take the place of divisions that would ideally have attacked from the north and west, but which political sensitivities had made impossible. While the rulers of certain countries did not want to risk the wrath of the Arab street by allowing overt movements of US troops through their ports towards Iraq, they had been prepared to accede to the launching of highly secret Coalition attacks from their territory. It was a typical double-dealing Middle Eastern approach, but the commanders of the UK and US special operations forces were used to that from years of operating in the region.
Most of the British – including B Squadron of the SAS – had come from the west. This force, including supporting aircraft, Royal Marines and RAF Regiment soldiers, had been limited because of regional nervousness about showing support for President Bush’s war. B Squadron drove into the western Iraqi desert in its modified SAS Land Rovers festooned with weapons, looking for ballistic missile launchers along the way. They were still out in the desert when Lamb arrived in Baghdad. Meanwhile, most of D Squadron had been used as a heliborne force in a set-piece operation to seize a desert airfield before pushing on to the Iraqi capital.
Whereas the SAS had fought mainly in the west, the SBS had joined an American-led taskforce coming from the north. Because of the traditional rivalry between the special forces organisations, by the time the SAS reached the airport there was already much noisy comment about what had happened to the Marines. One of the SBS’s sub-units, M Squadron, had staged through Cyprus, before insertion in northern Iraq, where it had come off badly in an unequal fight against a Republican Guard brigade. The commandos had extracted themselves rapidly without losing any people, but leaving behind most of their vehicles and much kit. In fact, Lamb’s entire Op ROW force had not lost a single soldier in combat during the taking of Iraq (although two members of D Squadron had died in a training accident before the invasion).
Arriving in Baghdad, Lamb needed to do several things. He intended to support the Secret Intelligence Service (more usually known as MI6) in re-establishing a station. Nobody knew quite what the future held in Iraq, and that very uncertainty made the British intelligence operation all the more important. Given the possible dangers to the agent runners, they would need protection. The DSF also needed to link up swiftly with Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Beaufort, the Commanding Officer of 22 SAS and the key man on the ground, to canvass his views about what should come next. Lamb found Beaufort at the airport that night and one soldier recalls watching the two of them scaling the vantage point of the airport’s control tower to scan the glow of Baghdad on the horizon. Just as the city they tried to make out in the darkness was entering a period of flux or uncertainty, so their own mission had gone beyond the original remit of Operation ROW, which was really no more than staging noisy diversions in the west and north of the country. Moving a couple of dozen troopers from D Squadron to Baghdad airport had been a flyer in the literal sense, but it typified the SAS spirit of wanting to get where the action was.
Both men knew they had no real mandate to operate in Baghdad, but both were convinced it was the right thing to do. As one who heard their expressions of determination to enter the Iraqi capital explains, ‘Baghdad had the potential to be an intelligence Aladdin’s cave of documents, evidence of WMD and evidence of Saddam’s possible connections to the wider transnational terrorist campaign.’ But Beaufort and his DSF knew that there were already plenty in London who were critical of Operation ROW because the campaign had been fought largely in the west and north, away from the main British advance. The argument that special operations tied down thousands of Iraqi troops who might otherwise have been sent south cut little ice with those who complained about Brigadier Lamb’s troops ‘screwing around on their own axis’. Lamb and Beaufort would have to couch their arguments for an ongoing Baghdad operation carefully, and Lamb would have to return to the UK to make the case in Whitehall, where many regarded the war as done and dusted.
Owing to the size of Operation ROW, Beaufort had deployed with the headquarters element referred to by British special forces types as TGHQ – Task Group Headquarters. This included the Commanding Officer, Regimental Sergeant-Major and Operations Officer of 22 SAS as well as several other key figures who usually resided back at the regiment’s base in Herefordshire. Although the TGHQ could consist of as few as half a dozen people (though it was larger in this case), its use in any operation was always an important sign of scale and the UK’s commitment, since most special forces operations tended to be run by the majors commanding special forces squadrons, which, depending on task, numbered a few dozen troops. The Americans had designated the SAS element in Iraq Task Force 14, and this name, often abbreviated to TF-14, came to be used by the SAS during its early months in Iraq.
Beaufort was a quite different figure from Lamb. Whereas Lamb’s Scottish accent was slight, and sometimes lost in a relaxed drawl, Beaufort spoke with clipped precision. Beaufort embodied generations of military service. Scion of an old West Country family, he was descended from a general who had once ruled Canada and an admiral of Nelson’s era, and had progressed into the special forces via a top private school and the army’s Household Division. One British general described him as ‘a superb soldier, very urbane, very able, very clever, destined for the top’. Among the SAS commander’s skills was a political instinct sharper than that of anyone else in the British special forces community. What Lamb and Beaufort had to do when they met in Baghdad was define more closely what the rationale for a continuing SAS role in the capital, away from the main British sphere of operations in Basra, should be.
One who watched them recalls, ‘[Lamb] did not want to end up supporting British forces in the south. He wanted to play the strategic game of supporting SIS in Baghdad’. In the short term, MI6 needed help to protect its people as they met with the agents that had supplied them with information prior to the fall of Saddam. Tony Blair’s government had set such store in the argument that the Iraqi dictator needed to be toppled because he was continuing to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction that the imperative to find some actual proof of these claims was, to put it mildly, pressing. An SAS operator paraphrases the message from Brigadier Lamb in these early days: ‘The strategic partnership with SIS is paramount and they’re in the shit.’ And even after the WMD issue had been dealt with, the spooks would need help.
TF-14 soon found themselves shifting from the mission of running around in heavily armed Land Rovers to the more subtle business of accompanying MI6 officers as they toured the city’s better suburbs (and further afield) meeting their sources. This was a task often best conducted with a low profile. The decision was taken to start sending B and D Squadrons home. These two elements had spent months working up to the invasion with intensive training and were exhausted. By early May, a month after the SAS had arrived in Baghdad, G Squadron, which had impatiently sat out the invasion of Iraq as the regiment’s counterterrorist stand-by force in the UK, started filtering in to take over as TF-14. In fact, it was not the whole squadron, for the system Beaufort had put in place as he took TGHQ and the others home was that a single squadron should be responsible for both of the regiment’s main operational commitments, Iraq and Afghanistan. These SAS squadrons had an establishment, on paper at least, of around sixty men. With around a dozen men in Afghanistan, this meant that the UK’s special forces contingent in Iraq was soon down to twenty or thirty ‘badged’ – fully fledged – members of the regiment, with a few more from the supporting cast of signallers and medics. Of the four Sabre squadrons, G sometimes fancied itself as the most sophisticated in its approach. Certainly, the record of its squadron leaders succeeding to the overall command of 22 SAS was a good one. The ‘G’ commemorated the incorporation decades before into the regiment of the Guards Independent Parachute Company and there was a preference for having Guards officers in command of G Squadron.
Although Charles Beaufort, himself a graduate of G Squadron, would take a close interest in Iraqi developments, making frequent visits, it would be the squadron Officer Commanding who would become the ranking member of the SAS in-country.
Besides Beaufort, one other SAS officer of note was frequently in Baghdad during those early months. Major Richard Williams would become the third key player, with Lamb and Beaufort, shaping the SAS’s operations in Iraq for years to come. The same general who extolled Beaufort above describes Williams as ‘a superb field soldier. He wears his heart on his sleeve; he’s very much an open book.’ Tall, with dark tousled hair and blue eyes, the OC’s demeanour was one of boyish enthusiasm. Williams had won the respect of his men the previous year, during an epic fire fight in southern Afghanistan. Tasked to assault a hill defended by dug-in Taleban but to do it without air support, Williams had led his soldiers up its slopes despite being hit by four bullets – none of which penetrated his equipment. He was awarded the Military Cross for his valour. Like many who serve with the regiment, Williams was driven. He told friends that the men who got through the arduous SAS selection process and prospered in the regiment were those who did not respect any limits: physical, psychological or of fear. ‘Richard is a buccaneer, a pirate,’ says a former colleague. ‘He goes for the opportunities and the adrenalin every time.’
It did not take long for Williams to spot his, and the regiment’s, opportunity in the growing chaos of Iraq’s streets. The orgy of looting triggered by the collapse of Saddam’s state had given way to all manner of violence. Williams wanted British operations to generate greater understanding of who was taking pot shots at Coalition troops, and why. It was equally apparent that the search for WMD, which was ostensibly their main task, was turning into an unproductive run-around. The debriefing of agents who had provided the British intelligence service with eye-catching lines in the government’s Iraq dossier – such as the suggestion that WMD could be ready for launch in forty-five minutes, or that Saddam had resumed the production of chemical and biological weapons – was to produce some awkward scenes in Iraqi living rooms. As the sources of this dubious information drew from their cigarettes, shrugged their shoulders and confessed they had little idea where the stuff was, it became clearer just how deeply ‘in the shit’ MI6 were. The service eventually had to officially withdraw the intelligence of several of these key sources that had been used so publicly in the run-up to war.
The G Squadron Sergeant-Major, Mike Page, had to set his people up for business in a city in which Coalition combat units were laying claims to palaces and people were abandoning their luxury homes. There was no telling where the next day’s mission might take them. Air mobility was critical so they would have to be ready to deploy from Baghdad airport at a moment’s notice. On the other hand they did not wish to sit on the airport apron in the baking heat of an Iraqi summer, and the word from Delta (more properly 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment – Delta) was that they were finding quarters downtown.
Examining where Delta Force had lodged, Page discovered that a neighbouring villa was empty. He laid claim to it, arguing that the logistic and operational advantages of being next door to Delta would be considerable. Necessity had to be the mother of invention for Page and his men because once the war, or the Operation ROW deployment, was over, the SAS had no helicopters, or indeed armoured vehicles, of its own, just a handful of Land Rovers and SUVs. A further property was requisitioned by the Rangers – American special operators who support strikes by top-tier US troops – and the special operations village close to the centre of power began to take shape.
The SAS bashed a hole in the wall separating their property from Delta Force, and soon there was frequent two-way traffic between the neighbours. The British settled into the habit of Thursday night barbecues, raucous occasions that included beer, something forbidden to their Delta or Rangers neighbours. Each unit naturally equipped itself with an operations room, a gym and a television room. A landing pad big enough for several helicopters was laid out at the back of the row of houses. The whole complex was christened Mission Support Station (MSS) Fernandez, in memory of Master Sergeant George Fernandez, a Delta Force operator who had been killed in April fighting members of the jihadist group Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq. The battle in which Fernandez died was a portent of the struggle that Task Force Green, as Delta was often called, and the rest of the special operations community in Iraq would face.
Having found a home at the MSS, G Squadron initially kept its HQ element and much of its gear at BIAP. Both the OC and the sergeant-major judged it better to keep their heavy stores in position there, ready for rapid deployment anywhere in the country. During the early months of the SAS operation in Baghdad, there was frequent shuttling between the airport and the MSS several miles to the east, in what soon came to be known as the Green Zone. The airport road would become one of the most dangerous stretches in Iraq, but as one SAS man said of those early months, ‘I used to be able to drive on that road, on my own, at night’.
For G Squadron, the first significant operation of their tour came on 16 June. The US had issued its deck of cards of wanted Ba’athists and Lieutenant-General Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti, a key associate of Saddam Hussein, ranked as the fourth most important. He was indeed a High-Value Target, and British intelligence had picked up a trace of him. The takedown in Tikrit that night was a joint UK/US operation. A couple of dozen men from G Squadron sped north in their Land Rovers, meeting up at an airbase near the city with operators from B Squadron of Delta Force. They formulated an attack plan in which one group would be landed by helicopters while others assaulted on the ground. The place was taken without resistance and, after a brief comedy in which Tikriti had been identified wearing a bad wig, the Coalition operators had their man. Given that only Saddam and his two sons ranked higher in the HVT pecking order, it was considered a highly successful operation. The SAS had got started in the business many of them would call ‘man hunting’.
Just over a week later, a disturbing event in the south drew in G Squadron and graphically demonstrated to British commanders the enormous potential for violence in Iraq. It happened in the town of Majar al-Kabir, in Maysan Province, one of those in the south that had been taken over by British forces. Arriving in Maysan, the British had soon become aware of its reputation for uncompromising lawlessness and banditry. The people there insisted they had liberated themselves from Saddam and did not want Coalition troops. British sweeps for guns, often using dogs – a tactic particularly inflammatory for Muslims – had caused local anger, and when six Royal Military Police soldiers had gone to a police station in Majar al-Kabir on 24 June a mob of several hundred attacked them.
What followed shocked the British army. Owing to poor coordination with the ground-holding unit (1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment), nobody came to help the lightly armed RMPs, who took refuge in the police station. The crowd stormed the building and some of the Red Caps were shot, others beaten to death with fists and stones.
A couple of days after the incident, half a dozen members of the SAS descended on Majar al-Kabir. The Paras declined to support their sortie into the town. Pressing on without a Quick Reaction Force to come to their aid was hazardous, but the SAS men went on and, in their own style, made enquiries about who had been responsible for killing the British soldiers. It didn’t take them long to get some answers, but gunmen were also appearing on the streets and it became apparent that they would have to shoot their way out.
The soldiers gathered their information, quitting the town under a hail of fire. But those running the British division in southern Iraq discouraged the SAS from going back in to arrest those responsible for the 24 June killings. The guidance to the special operators was just the same as it had been to 1 Para – stay out until the situation calms down.
In these few days in June 2003, the SAS team had seen the way things were going to play out. The future lay in Baghdad.
Those who ran UK special forces knew well enough that if they wanted to mount successful takedowns good, timely intelligence was critical to success. The more operations you wanted, the more intelligence you would need. As SIS started to set up shop, it was apparent that its variety of tasks, ranging from trying to find WMD to gathering political intelligence or predicting what might happen in the post-Saddam power vacuum, meant they could throw TF-14 the occasional bone but little more. And even if they did bring in a good tip, how would the SAS get there without its own helicopters, how would they fit in with the other troops operating there and who would back them up if things went wrong? These questions could be answered in part by sticking close to the Americans: if they were involved in every operation they could provide choppers and liaise with the local US ground-holding unit. But if the SAS worked like that they could show little independence and might be completely scuppered when operating in the British-held areas to the south. And if they could do so little on their own, what point was there in adding a few dozen British special operators to the huge killing machine already set in motion by the US?
To Williams, Beaufort and Lamb, the answers to these questions suggested that the SAS either develop its capabilities or give up the game. Since none of them were quitters by nature, they needed a stand-alone operation – or at least elements of one. The first step consisted of forming a special Iraqi unit as part of TF-14.
During the invasion of Iraq the British had assisted Scorpion Force, a special intelligence collection unit bankrolled by the CIA and manned largely by Iraqis. Much of the raw material for this outfit had come from the exiled Iraqi opposition – the mostly Shia and Kurd anti-Saddam parties on which the Pentagon set great store in those early days after the invasion. Scorpion Force was not considered a success for many reasons; many of its men disappeared soon after the invasion and others were considered to be political hacks rather than soldiers.
Starting afresh, the British set about assembling a different team of Iraqis. They found a dozen, so the unit was immediately christened The Apostles. The Apostles would emerge as the unsung heroes of what was to follow. They were used for everything from interpreting for SAS teams on the ground to more sensitive operations. Their singular advantage in all these missions was an ability to blend in on Iraqi streets in a way no foreigner could manage.
As the operation built up, the obvious question was, what was it for? The search for WMD soon became the kind of dispiriting exercise that many in the forces are used to but special operators, with their thirst for action or other tangible successes, carry out on sufferance. It was obvious with the killing already breaking out on Baghdad’s streets that it had political undercurrents. What was going on? Coalition forces had already killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of irregulars, from the Fedayeen Saddam and other groups during the invasion. Were the people who the Pentagon high-ups liked to call ‘Ba’athist dead-enders’ going to rally resistance to the invaders? Or what about the jihadists, religious extremists like Ansar al-Islam, whom intelligence suggested were summoning mujahedeen from across the Middle East to do battle with Americans in Iraq?
The top brass back in the UK didn’t seem to care about the answers to these questions. ‘There was a sense of apathy in the UK about why any of this mattered,’ recalls one special operator. ‘We were going into soft hats.’ The view of those watching the glue of Iraqi society dissolving on the streets of Baghdad was quite different from those back home, who just wanted to move on. With a bewildering array of possible enemies – from jihadists to demobbed officers or Sunni tribes – the SAS needed proper authority to shift from the war and WMD missions to something new. Major Williams took the initiative. In June 2003 he sent up a request for a new mission. It went through the command machinery back in the UK and was duly authorised under the codename Operation PARADOXICAL. Those who know about the contents of this secret order say it was very broadly drawn, allowing the SAS to target ‘threats to the Coalition’ without defining exactly what they were. While others debated whether an insurgency had really broken out, Britain’s special operators had already written their own marching orders.
TASK FORCE BLACK. Copyright © 2010 by Mark Urban.