Task Force Black
The Explosive True Story of the Secret Special Forces War in Iraq
By Mark Urban
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Mark Urban
All rights reserved.
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. (Continues...)
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