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The Immaculate Mission: ODA 551 in the Karbala Gap

On the fourth day of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), a small blue symbol appeared on Blue Force Tracking (BFT) system screens around the world. It showed an Army Special Forces (SF) Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA or “A” Team) had somehow been inserted into the chokepoint of Baghdad. For the few who knew the overall OIF war plan, that small blue symbol represented one of the most amazing Special Operations Forces (SOF) missions ever attempted.

5th SFG, along with other SOF units, would become the force multiplier that Gen. Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, would use to overcome the many limitations imposed upon him for liberating Iraq.

The origins of the mission went back over a year, during the early planning for OIF at CENTCOM Headquarters at MacDill AFB at Tampa, Fla. Given the troop and diplomatic restrictions that would eventually be placed on War Plan 1005V, the one real option for focusing CENTCOM’s limited combat power would be the widespread use of SOF units across Iraq. Key among the tasks given to SOF would be a series of deep-penetration missions, including Special Reconnaissance (SR) tasks.


ODA 551: The Team

By the time the planners of OIF were considering their options in early 2002, the SF soldiers of the 5th Special Forces Group (SFG) were already living legends in the small world of American SOF. Led by Col. John Mulholland, the 5th SFG had liberated Afghanistan in just seven weeks during late 2001. 5th SFG, along with other SOF units, would become the force multiplier that Gen. Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, would use to overcome the many limitations imposed upon him for liberating Iraq.

Karbala Gap

ODA 551′s initial hide site in the eroded wadi. U.S. Army photo.

By spring 2002, most of the 5th SFG teams had returned to their home base at Fort Campbell, Ky. It was no secret that they were getting ready to take part in the invasion of Iraq. For the individual 5th SFG teams and SF soldiers, it was only a question of when and just what missions they would undertake in their second war of the new millennium.

ODA 551 was given their deep penetration mission in late 2002 and spent the remainder of the year training and planning. Since the Karbala area was heavily defended by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), ODA 551 would be delivered to a landing zone some distance from their planned hide site. This meant that they would use Ground Mobility Vehicles (GMVs – modified M1025 HMMWVs) to carry ODA 551’s heavy load of personnel, weapons, equipment, and supplies. Learning to maneuver and navigate the GMVs, along with weapons training, took up much of their time.

ODA 551’s mission was actually simplicity itself: set up a covert “hide” position inside the Karbala Gap (west of the city of Karbala), and maintain surveillance on troop and vehicle traffic in the area. The first problem was that the few miles of open ground between the town and Bahr al Milh Lake to the east was as flat as a billiard table, with little in the way of cover. As if the topography was not enough of a problem, the area was also on the far right flank of the Medina Republican Guards armored division and heavily trafficked. This fact, and the need for V Corps to move through the gap, meant that if there was a place where Iraqis would use chemical weapons, this was it.

Karbala Gap

Two ODA 551 team members at the lip of the wadi endure a sandstorm. U.S. Army photo.

Team 551 was an interesting choice for the mission, as it had not actually been deployed during Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan (OEF-A). Personnel shortages in other teams had meant that ODA 551 had supplied SF soldiers to other teams going to OEF-A. This included providing their team captain to ODA 555, the very first SF team into Afghanistan. Therefore, the team had a solid base of leadership experience in exactly the kind of mission they would be asked to carry out in OIF.

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