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US Special Forces in Iraq Long Before War Began - 2003-04-29

U.S. Special Forces worked secretly with Iraqi townspeople on the outskirts of Baghdad for months before the war with Iraq got under way. The disclosure comes 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 says 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 gives few details on the U.S. presence before the war. It quotes a Special Forces team leader, identified only as Captain Mike, as saying the rapport developed with townspeople helped considerably in arranging last week's election.

Thousands of American Special Forces took part in the war in Iraq - securing airfields, attacking government and terrorist facilities and removing the Iraqi military's capability to launch missiles against neighboring countries. But little is known about their involvement in secret operations before the actual start of the war.

During a briefing earlier this month, Army Major General Stanley McChrystal of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, characterized the use of Special Operations units as more extensive than in any other recent conflict. "They are more extensive in this campaign than any I have seen," he said. "Probably, as a percentage of effort, they are unprecedented for a war that also has a conventional part to it."

General McChrystal said, in the north, Special Operations forces worked with Kurdish groups, while in the west, they engaged in attacks on airfields, suspected weapons of mass destruction sites and some Iraqi military command-and-control facilities.

He said that, in the south, Special Forces assisted conventional units with reconnaissance and other, unspecified activities. He then made what might be a brief reference to the kind of work done by the unit working in Abu Gharib months before the war. "Then, additionally, some of the work in some of the cities to help the Shi'a element," he said. "So, it's probably the most effective and the widest use of Special Operations forces in recent history, clearly."

It is unclear whether Special Forces remained in Abu Gharib throughout the months leading to the start of the war. However, Pentagon officials have in the past indicated some Special Forces units moved in and out of Iraq before the war, without maintaining a permanent presence.