The SAS were involved in fierce fighting inside Iraq the day before the crucial Commons vote in 2003 that approved military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime, The Mail on Sunday can reveal today.
As the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War approaches, we have uncovered a trove of documents about the secret mission, including accounts of senior Special Forces personnel.
Told here for the first time, this is the story of Operation Row, one of the most controversial missions in SAS history.
To preserve the anonymity of surviving SAS soldiers, their names have been changed.
At a classified location in the Arabian Gulf, a thunder of rotor blades shatters the silence of the desert night.
Squads of heavily armed Special Air Service soldiers, their faces shrouded by scarves, sprint through a sandstorm whipped up by the waiting fleet of helicopters.
Their boots clatter against the metal tailgates as the hand-picked men from the SAS’s D Squadron scramble inside the six Chinook CH-47 transporters and strap themselves into seats that fold down from the helicopters’ walls.
Seconds remain before the launch of their top-secret mission. Late on the night of March 17, 2003, and 24 hours before MPs are due to vote on the Iraq War, these soldiers are under orders to infiltrate the country and deliver a stunning blow to Saddam Hussein’s most elite troops.
The SAS’s destination is Al Qa’im, a town where, according to intelligence reports, Saddam Hussein’s forces are poised to fire chemical weapons towards Israel.
The SAS’s mission is to prevent an attack on the Jewish state.
British special forces in Baghdad after the missionAn SAS officer describes the plans for Op Row: ‘D Squadron would be flying in 6x CH-47s in 3x waves, 120kms over the border. We were then to head from the LZ [Landing Zone] to Al Qa’im, a township of 100,000 people, 2x Regts of the fearsomely proud Republican Guards and a Marine battalion.
‘It was a location where missiles had been fired at Israel in the past and a site of strategic importance for WMD material. D Sqn comprised 60 men.’
Inside one of the Chinooks, radio specialist Captain Jim Watkins breathes in air thick with aviation fuel fumes. He can still taste the port he downed moments before running aboard.
In spite of this toast, the officer remains anxious. He is missing his girlfriend, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to since Christmas. Watkins and his SAS colleagues have spent the previous three months confined in secret bases in Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Parliament might not have approved the mission but Watkins and his comrades have written their ‘death letters’ – to be read by their loved ones in case the operation goes tragically wrong. Watkins later wrote in his diary: ‘The reality of what we were about to do suddenly struck home and a number of emotions began to run through my mind.
‘Fear, anxiety and also nervousness on how I would perform but most of all I was consumed with excitement. While realising what lay ahead, it was incredibly difficult to write my last words.
The war officially begins: President Bush announced the war had begun in March 2003 as Baghdad is bombedI tried to write a message that both consoled my girlfriend and family, while adding a bit of humour and character to try to lighten the mood.’
Deafened by the roar of turbo-shaft engines, Watkins checks his Diemaco rifle and personal equipment, tightening straps for the thousandth time. Then he feels a terrific thrust as the Chinook climbs powerfully into the night sky.Below, the steel-fenced confines of Al Jafr airbase in southern Jordan disappear into the darkness. Relieved the mission is finally under way, Watkins sends a radio message back to the SAS’s HQ. Instantly he feels a smack around his head.‘Shut the **** up!’ screams Sergeant Joe Smith.
Confronted by this battle-hardened veteran, Watkins’s seniority counts for little. Chastened, the captain lowers the volume on his headphones.
Back at Al Jafr, a second wave of six Chinooks takes off. On board are more soldiers from the SAS’s D Squadron and their Land Rovers, nicknamed ‘Pinkies’. These open-top vehicles are armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and Stinger missiles.
Shortly afterwards, the third wave of Chinooks follow the same flightpath. On the night of March 17 to 18, the passage into enemy airspace is smoothed by raids conducted by US Little Bird helicopters – lightweight, single-seater aircraft with a distinctive spherical cockpit.
Secret documents: Accounts of SAS soldiers now reveal they were in Iraq fighting before the war had begunAs an SAS officer wrote: ‘It got darker and the Little Birds came back to refuel and rearm with [gun] barrels glowing white-hot. I knew that there was no turning back, Allied forces were now committed.’
The Chinooks land in Iraq’s western desert and Watkins disembarks. Shivering with cold, Watkins and his colleagues dig themselves into defensive positions. To his horror, Watkins sees a set of headlights approaching the SAS’s positions.Urgently, the officer cocks his rifle and dives into the dust, his heart pounding. Fortunately, the cars pass without slowing down. Afterwards, while his more seasoned colleagues allowed themselves some shut-eye, Watkins remains too nervous to sleep.
Attorney General at the time: Lord Goldsmith agreed that Resolution 1441 gave the legal authority for the conflictHe spends March 18 waiting for another batch of 60 soldiers, men selected from the SAS’s B Squadron, to arrive at the same location having driven from Al Jafr in Land Rovers. Back in Britain, Cabinet Ministers are now digesting Attorney General Lord Goldsmith’s judgment that military action against Iraq is legal – on the basis of Saddam Hussein’s non-compliance with United Nations resolutions. On the evening of March 18, Tony Blair tells MPs that British troops can either ‘turn back or hold firm to the course we have set’. That evening the House of Commons passes a Government motion endorsing military action by 412 votes to 149.
That night, the soldiers of B Squadron complete their journey. In the early hours of March 19, Watkins and his colleagues approach Al Qa’im and probe the defences of the town’s water-treatment plant – a likely base for chemical weapons.
But the soldiers are spotted and the night sky lights up with Iraqi firepower. The SAS have driven into a hornet’s nest of enemy activity. In the ensuing battle, enemy rounds shatter the barrel of an SAS sniper’s Barrett .50 calibre rifle, sending shrapnel through his legs. Showing remarkable bravery, the sniper fights on.
The resistance from the Republican Guards is so intense that a Pinkie crew are forced to abandon their vehicle. Enemy rounds pepper the sand at their feet as they run for cover. With highly sensitive communications equipment and heavy weapons aboard the Pinkie, the Officer Commanding (OC) B Squadron decides to ‘deny’ (destroy) the Land Rover by rocket fire.
The town of Al Qa-im where the battle took place: US marines conduct a house-to-house search looking for insurgents in the town near the Iraqi-Syrian border in 2005
A direct hit is achieved but Watkins fears not all the radio kit has been damaged so he suggests that the OC withdraw his soldiers from the water treatment plant to a safe lying-up position where he can reprogramme the squadron’s radios.With his soldiers winning the firefight against the Repub-lican Guards, the OC is understandably reluctant to retreat. Eventually he agrees.
Joint operations by B and D Squadrons resume the following day, March 19, which is known as ‘Air Day’ because it is when the Allied aerial bombardment of Iraq begins.
At 9.34pm on March 19, the US-led coalition launches its assault on Baghdad. At 10.16pm (US Eastern Standard Time), President Bush outlines the purpose of invading Iraq: ‘To free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.’
The documents now obtained by The Mail on Sunday establish that the SAS launched Op Row ‘two days before Air Day’.
Toppling Saddam Hussein: Tony Blair addressing British troops in Basra in 2003On their second night in Iraq, SAS personnel witnessed the ‘shock and awe’ of the air strikes. An officer wrote: ‘The next night the air raids started and we sat in the desert watching what was a pretty impressive fireworks display.‘
16 Troop [part of D Sqn] had been up to the Syrian border to assess a barracks area and had performed a stand-off attack. 17 and 19 Troops [also part of D Sqn] had been to the MSR [Main Supply Route] to set up an ambush.
The day after the air raids we moved to the MSR west of the built-up area and set up a road block. In fact, we did this three days running. This seemed to aggravate the local militia.
‘We then ascertained through interpreters that a convoy consisting of about 20x Technicals [4x4s converted into weapons platforms] had been sent out to search for us.’
During a skirmish, SAS officer Captain James Stenner and Sergeant Smith find themselves outnumbered and outgunned. Yet they continue their assault, putting to good use the rocket launchers bolted aboard their Pinkies.
So high are the regiment’s expectations when it comes to bravery that it is widely accepted that it is harder for SAS personnel to win medals than it is for soldiers in regular units. But such is Stenner and Smith’s gallantry, they both receive the Military Cross. Tragically, Stenner, 30, the son of a celebrated former SAS soldier, is later killed in a road accident in Baghdad.
At the Hutton Inquiry: Downing Street's former communications chief Alastair Campbell faced claims he 'sexed up' a report making the case for war in Iraq
SAS attempts to reach the water treatment plant continue from March 20 but they meet stiff Iraqi resistance.
An officer wrote: ‘It was a very cold and windy night and the squadron was held up outside a Bedouin village while the lead element tried to find a path through. ‘Suddenly a huge missile flew 300ft above us and disappeared into the distance before exploding. As first light broke, a considerable enemy position was seen on top of a hill. The OC called in air support and an aircraft dropped its payload (2,500lb in total).’
After six weeks in the western desert, D Squadron redeployed to Baghdad.
From May 2003 to May 2009 – when the SAS finally left Iraq – the regiment fought a much-praised counter-insurgency operation against enemies such as Qaeda-Iraq (AQ-I).
US Commander General David Petraeus said of the SAS: ‘They have exceptional initiative, exceptional skill, exceptional courage and, I think, exceptional savvy.
‘I can’t say enough about how impressive they are in thinking on their feet.’'
THIS SHOWS BLAIR WAS DETERMINED TO INVADE', SAYS TOP LIB DEM
Veteran MP Sir Menzies Campbell last night condemned Tony Blair over the early deployment of British Special Forces into Iraq.
Sir Menzies said the launch of the SAS mission before the parliamentary vote was proof Blair had already decided to back President Bush’s invasion plan.
Sir Menzies, Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesman in March 2003, said: ‘The public perception was that the debate and the vote on the 18th was necessary to give legitimacy to the Labour Government’s policy, led by Blair, to support military action against Saddam Hussein.
‘But if Special Forces were already deployed then that simply underlines the fact that Tony Blair was determined to go with President Bush in all and every circumstances.
‘It was generally thought that Blair had made one of the best speeches heard in the House of Commons for many years, but had MPs been aware of the use of the SAS there might have been many more Labour rebels.’
Sir Menzies was among 149 MPs, including all 53 Liberal Democrat members, who voted against military action. But his opposition to the SAS entering Iraq before the Commons had voted was dismissed last night by a former commander of British troops.
Colonel Richard Kemp of the Royal Anglian Regiment, who worked in Iraq as an observer for the Cabinet Office from 2003 to 2005, said it was often necessary for Special Forces to deploy without parliamentary authority.
He said: ‘By March 17 the Attorney General had decided that military action was legal, so the SAS weren’t doing anything wrong. The deployment of such Special Forces units has to be looked at differently to the regular Army.
'It would have been irresponsible of the Government to have pushed forward the big brigades of the British Army without the SAS having gone ahead and conducted preliminary missions such as Operation Row.’