Defense Media Network

Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF): Special Operations Forces and the Liberation of Iraq

Operation Iraqi Freedom Phase 1: March 19 to May 1, 2003


Special operations forces (SOF) have been at the forefront of post-Cold War military operations, a trend that has only become more important as the 20th century turned into the 21st. The liberation of Afghanistan during the initial phase of Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A) was the capstone to a half-century of training and development by SOF units, taking the country from Taliban control in just 49 days. OEF-A provided the national leaders and military planners of what became Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) with great confidence in SOF capabilities and leadership. Unlike Operation Desert Storm in 1991, SOF units were part of OIF operational planning from the start, being assigned key responsibilities upon which the entire war effort would depend. Furthermore, when the American diplomatic effort to build the allied coalition faltered early in 2003, it was SOF units that wound up filling in the “holes” left in the OIF plan by problems finding coalition partners and bases in friendly host nations.


Getting Ready

For SOF units that would serve in the initial stage of OIF, 2002 was spent disengaging from their existing fights in the war on terrorism, returning stateside, refitting, and moving into training to support the planned liberation of Iraq. For units like the 5th Special Forces Group (SFG), which had conducted the 49-day liberation of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, this meant handing over their responsibilities in Central Asia to other SOF units like the 20th SFG of the Army National Guard (ANG). In fact, the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) had to stretch itself to the limit to cover existing contingencies in places like Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Colombia as well as serve the needs of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and European Command (EUCOM) in OIF. These needs would be significant, as the SOF component commander of CENTCOM (SOCCENT), then-Brig. Gen. Gary L. Harrell, had planned the biggest set of linked SOF operations in military history. These would include:

Ground mobility 5th Special forces group

5th Special Forces Group ground mobility vehicles preparing to enter Iraq. Photo courtesy USASOC

• Western Iraq – The single most important strategic priority SOF mission of OIF was to ensure that not one ballistic or cruise missile was launched from Iraq onto allied and friendly host nations in the region. Therefore, SOF units would be tasked with locating and destroying missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), along with supporting infrastructure in western Iraq.

• Littoral Areas – One of the vital early goals of the OIF campaign plan was to clear mines and obstacles in the northern Persian Gulf and Shatt al-Arab waterway to the port city of Umm Qasr. This would allow for the rapid resupply of southern Iraq, especially the second city of Basra.There also was a requirement to seize a number of oil production platforms in the northern Persian Gulf, both to preserve Iraq’s oil industry and avoid a possible ecological disaster.

• Southern Iraq – The allied invasion force based in Kuwait would require a number of SOF services in their drive to Baghdad. These would range from deep reconnaissance to seizure of critical transportation, oil production, and infrastructure targets. There also would be a need for personnel skilled in Iraqi culture and society to do initial surveys and help get basic services back to areas that had suffered the worst of Saddam Hussein’s abuses.

•  Northern Iraq – Also planned as an invasion route to Baghdad, northern Iraq was home to the Kurdish and Peshmerga populations, which had also suffered Baath Party oppression. In addition to supporting operations by units of the III Corps on their drive to Baghdad, SOF units would have to help the indigenous populations of the region in their own militia operations, while protecting the vital oilfields and production facilities near Kirkuk.

•  Baghdad – The true “center of gravity” for OIF, there would be a great need for SOF units and services in and around the Baghdad metroplex, along with the centers of Baathist power such as Ramadi and Tikrit once allied forces entered the city.

For OIF, Harrell had the services of every SOCOM component command, along with something new: Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) commanders being allowed to command conventional force units. Announced by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in January 2003, this fundamental change was the result of the stunning events of OEF-A, where a few hundred SOF personnel, backed by the conventional war machine of the United States, took down the Taliban government in less than two months. As it turned out, this change would be one of the decisive reasons for the OIF victory.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...