The U.S. military's Central Command now says it made a mistake earlier this week when it reported American commandos worked secretly on the outskirts of Baghdad for months before the war with Iraq got under way. But the correction raises new questions.
The original disclosure came in an otherwise unremarkable news release from the U.S. military's Central Command about American troops assisting in the election of a town council just outside the Iraqi capital.
It said soldiers from the U.S. 5th Special Forces Group worked for over eight months with the people of Abu Gharib, a town of over a million on the western outskirts of Baghdad just north of the international airport.
That would put the Special Forces in the town last August or September, well before the start of the war last month.
The release gave few other details but it quoted a Special Forces team leader identified only as Captain Mike as saying the fact U.S. troops had been in the area before the start of the war helped considerably in arranging last week's election.
Now, in a revised news release, Captain Mike has disappeared altogether, a decision the release says is in conformity with Army Special Forces Public Affairs policy on identification of personnel.
Also changed is the date Special Forces arrived in Abu Gharib. Dropped is the reference to an eight month presence. The revised release says Special Forces have been working with townspeople since early April, after the start of the war.
Pentagon officials appeared embarrassed by the revision. They said they were caught by surprise, particularly since the process of making public the original news release involved several individuals and a system of checks and balances in order to prevent errors. They thought the unusual disclosure in the first statement was an intentional effort to shed some light on commando activities.
They now suspect the revised release may have been motivated more by a desire to protect Special Forces secrets than to actually correct the record.
Though Special Forces activities are generally secret, defense sources acknowledged earlier this week that the elite commandos had been in and out of locations in Iraq well before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Because of that, they did not dispute the original statement.