Author’s Note – The story of operations by the 75th Ranger Regiment since September 11 has necessarily been a “close hold” subject within the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) community. This article came about as a result of requests going back to 2003 with the USASOC Public Affairs Office. It needs to be said that some details of the Haditha Dam operation have been deleted for security reasons, both personnel and operational. Nevertheless, I believe that the Haditha Dam seizure will rank alongside the Point du Hoc assault on D-Day, and the 1993 Mogadishu firefight in the annals of Ranger history. Rangers lead the way!
The first few weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) were a busy time, and Americans can be forgiven if they missed a part of the April 1 CENTCOM briefing that announced the seizure of the Haditha High Dam and Ramadi Highway Bridge. Baghdad was about to fall, U.S. SOF forces in the northern part of Iraq were on the offensive to take the Kirkuk oilfields, and the taking of two pieces of Iraqi infrastructure seemed a trivial thing. It was anything but.
The roots of the Haditha Dam seizure date to long before the start of OIF. Constantly on coalition planners’ minds were the “scorched earth” tactics employed by Saddam Hussein during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Early in that war, his forces had flooded the Persian Gulf with crude oil to destroy fishing grounds and contaminate desalinization plants. Then Saddam ordered the destruction of the Kuwaiti oilfields by blowing up the wellheads.
So, along with the obvious targets like the oilfields near Basra and Kirkuk, CENTCOM planners began to look at infrastructure that might have value in a postwar Iraq, and destructive effects in wartime. Bridges, powerplants, and all manner of modern structures went into the databases, along with ideas on how to either neutralize or capture them. And at the very top of the list was the Haditha High Dam over the Euphrates River.
One of the largest dams in the world, the Haditha complex provided fully one-third of the Iraqi electrical grid load in 2003. Located northwest of Baghdad, the dam was built during the Cold War to provide hydroelectric power for central Iraq, including Baghdad. The Haditha Dam also controlled the flow of the Euphrates into the lower Euphrates/Tigris River Valley.
This, in fact, was the great fear among CENTCOM planners; that Saddam would order the lock gates open or the dam destroyed, and flood the entire central part of the Euphrates/Tigris River Valley, creating an ecological and humanitarian disaster around Baghdad, Karbala, and other populated areas. The problem was that Haditha Dam was about as far from a friendly foreign border as you could go in Iraq back in early 2003, and was simply not accessible. However, that situation changed in late March 2003.
Opportunity: JSOTF-W at War
From the very beginning of planning at CENTCOM for OIF, SOF units had been seen as full partners in the invasion of Iraq. Following their brilliant Afghan campaign in the fall of 2001, American SOF forces had the credibility to seemingly accomplish any task assigned to them. The most important of these was the neutralization of potential Iraqi ballistic missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Fired from western Iraq, these might be used to attack targets in Israel and other friendly regional nations in an attempt to break up the allied coalition. The solution to this problem was the creation of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – West (CJSOTF-W).
CJSOTF-W was a mixed force of U.S. Army Special Forces (SF), British and Australian Special Air Service (SAS), elements of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), and aircraft from the U.S. Air Force (USAF), Royal Air Force, and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). These were joined by several battalion-sized infantry formations, including the 3rd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment (3rd/75th Rangers). CJSOTF-W had its own air force, including three squadrons of Air National Guard F-16s and A-10s modified with Israeli-made Litening III targeting pods. All the CJSOTF-W units, including small detachments of engineers and air defense troops, were based in friendly host nations adjacent to Iraq.
The CJSOTF-W commander, Col. John Mulholland (who previously had commanded Task Force Dagger in northern Afghanistan), had every intention of making the maximum use of all these assets. CJSOTF-W’s mission would be to sweep western Iraq to locate and neutralize any tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) armed with WMDs. CJSOTF-W would also be tasked to take a number of airfields and important targets, conditions allowing.
In western Iraq, CJSOTF-W managed to achieve its planned objectives with relative ease, taking two airfields (H2 and H3) and quickly finding out that there were no tactical ballistic missiles or WMDs to be found. Nevertheless, CJSOTF-W had other objectives that they rapidly moved onto, with the 3rd/75th Rangers at the center of the action.
On the evening of March 24, Company C of the 3rd/75th Rangers jumped near Al Qaim on the Syrian border, seizing a small airfield. Then, on March 27, Company B rode helicopters of the 160th SOAR to raid the Al Qadisiyah Research Center (“Objective Beaver”), a suspected WMD testing facility. Finally, on March 28, Company A of the 3rd/75th Rangers, reinforced with engineers and USAF combat controllers, loaded onto C-17 jet transports and jumped onto H1 Airfield (“Objective Serpent”), the northernmost of the Iraqi fighter bases. In just 10 days from the start of OIF, CJSOTF-W had taken the western third of Iraq. Mulholland then quickly moved the headquarters of CJSOTF-W to H1 Airfield and began to consider new targets for his command.
The rapid seizure of H1 Airfield suddenly put several critical pieces of infrastructure within range of CJSOTF-W. The first two targets were the most important pieces of public works in all of Iraq: the Ramadi Highway Bridge and the Haditha Dam. The Ramadi Highway Bridge was one of only two crossings on the Euphrates River capable of supporting heavy loads overland from Jordan; its destruction or interdiction would make supplying the cities of central Iraq all but impossible in the days following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Even more important, however, was the Haditha High Dam (“Objective Lynx”). Along with providing flood control and a third of Iraq’s electrical generation capacity, the dam provided the only other crossing of the Euphrates River west of Baghdad. As an added bonus, taking both targets would help draw Iraqi forces away from the defense of Baghdad, which was coming under assault by V Corps.
However, the Iraqis were not ignorant of the dam’s value, and had stationed a surprisingly strong defense force around the structure.
• Armor – Four companies of armor, composed of approximately 44 Russian-made T-55 tanks and BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles.
• Infantry – While there was only a single security company with about 120 troops near the dam itself, almost 6,000 Iraqi soldiers were within 30 kilometers of the site.
• Artillery – An estimated 14 of the incomparable South African-built GNH-45 155 mm howitzers were in direct support of the dam defenses. The Iraqis also had numerous mortars emplaced around the Haditha area.
• Air Defenses – Several truck-mounted Franco-German-made Roland surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers were deployed in the Haditha area, along with nearly a dozen S-60 57 mm anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) batteries, and almost 70 light AAA pieces.
This made the Haditha High Dam one of the most heavily defended targets in all of Iraq.
This is Part 1 of a three part series on the Haditha Dam Seizure. Next: Getting Ready: Move to Contact. This story was first published in its entirety in The Year in Special Operations: 2006 Edition.
Part 2: Move to Contact
Part 3: The Taking of Objective Cobalt