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Chicago Tribune August 05, 2003

Secret task force is spearhead in hunt for Hussein

Special Operations group's trademark lightning-fast raids target ex-dictator

By E.A. Torriero and Gary Marx, Tribune staff reporters.

Scurrying down ropes from helicopters and scaling walls on ladders, U.S. commandos raided three houses in an upscale neighborhood Monday morning.

"Where's Saddam?" the soldiers yelled, according to residents who said they cowered in their bedrooms as the Americans blew out their front doors with explosives. "We know he's in here."

Their search for the deposed Iraqi leader turned up empty, but it had all the earmarks of the elite Special Operations Task Force 20.

For the first time, the U.S. military acknowledged Monday that the highly secretive task force is one of the units spearheading the hunt for Saddam Hussein.

The Pentagon has been reluctant to confirm Task Force 20's existence. But its presence surfaced recently in the raid that killed Hussein's two sons in northern Iraq and the storming of a sheik's house nine days ago in Baghdad that left up to five Iraqis dead, military sources said.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for the 4th Infantry Division announced that four key Hussein regime figures were detained in the past week by Task Force 20 near Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Two of them were described as "very close associates" of Hussein, Maj. Josslyn Aberle said.

Task Force 20's trademark is lightning-fast assaults, and members have at their disposal anything the military can muster, experts said. In recent months, the unit has turned its attention from hunting for weapons of mass destruction to hunting down Hussein and his top loyalists.

"They have a mandate to get him," a military official said. "We give them whatever support it takes."

A military spokesman in Baghdad would not confirm or deny Monday's raid in the Mansour neighborhood, a few blocks away from where Task Force 20 struck the sheik's house July 27.

From residents' description of Monday morning's assault, it appeared certain that Task Force 20 was at work. Only hours after the raid, other U.S. soldiers spoke to family members and offered compensation for damaged property.

"They told us that we had been visited by the best army unit in the world that is out to find Saddam," said Yaser Mohammed Ghany, sweeping up shattered window glass and splinters from broken door frames.

The commandos apparently came equipped with high-tech surveillance gear and brought a dog that was sniffing around for Hussein's scent, residents said. The commandos told residents they were acting on a tip that Hussein was staying at one of the three houses.

"They were clearly not your usual soldiers," Ghany said.

1,500-soldier unit

Military experts say Task Force 20 is based at Baghdad International Airport and has perhaps 1,500 soldiers and its own logistical, communications and intelligence capabilities. The task force is a combination of Special Operations units, including the Army's Delta Force and Rangers and Navy SEALs, military experts said.

Task Force 20 was formed before the start of the Iraq war and infiltrated the western desert to locate Iraqi Scud missiles and key military units for destruction by U.S. aircraft and other forces, said Patrick Garrett, associate analyst at GlobalSecurity.org in Virginia.

At the war's onset, Task Force 20 secured a key dam to prevent Hussein's forces from blowing it up. After major combat operations ended, the unit unsuccessfully scoured Iraq for chemical and biological weapons, analysts said.

Shift in mission

Now, sources said, Task Force 20 mobilizes in minutes on informants' tips and other intelligence about Hussein's possible whereabouts. It fans out in small teams of a dozen commandos that are flown in helicopters or arrive in Humvees.

As they seal off the target area, a second unit then enters the house or building to search for the targets. Other task force members follow up and gather intelligence information at the site, analysts say.

The two most recent raids in the Mansour neighborhood appear to be textbook Task Force 20 operations.

On the afternoon of July 27, residents became suspicious when Americans with crew cuts parked in pickups near the house of the sheik, a suspected Hussein loyalist.

Two hours later, commandos wearing gas masks, dark brown fatigues and bright markings on their sleeves stormed the house. On the street, troops in Humvees fired at cars that witnesses say drove unwittingly toward the raid.

Up to five Iraqis died, including a man driving two family members to church. Shopkeepers and residents say they have little respect for the members of Task Force 20, who they describe as rude and trigger-happy.

"To me they are more like cowards," said Ahmed Ibrahim, an optician whose Mercedes and Toyota parked on the street were destroyed by U.S. gunfire in the raid.

At 2:30 a.m. Monday, Task Force 20 apparently invaded the same west Baghdad neighborhood, which is considered sympathetic to Hussein.

As three helicopters whirled overhead, a group of commandos armed with assault rifles and explosives used ropes to drop down.

On the street, several Humvees screeched to halt. The soldiers bounded out of the vehicles and scaled 8-foot walls around the compound using ladders.

"We are being invaded!" one elderly man shouted to his family.

Soldiers used explosives to blow out front doors of three adjacent houses. They raked windows with gunfire, according to the families. Residents scurried down the stairs with their hands up. After the occupants were handcuffed with plastic ties, the soldiers demanded to see Hussein, residents said.

"They said, 'You had lunch with him,'" said Ghany, whose father is a well-known Iraqi sculptor who created several Hussein statues. "I told them I never ever met the man in my life. They said, 'Shut up.'"

The commandos stayed less than 30 minutes. No one was injured or detained.

By morning, another American unit arrived and apologized, residents said. They said the soldiers distributed $2,000 in crisp U.S. greenbacks to fix damage to doors, windows, cars and living rooms.

"It's great if you can take over a building in 15 minutes, but if Saddam is not in it, he's not in it," said Michael Donovan, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.


Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune Company