Lessons of Somalia bolster US successes

Iraq's battle plan likely sought to create a 'Black Hawk Down' scenario.

Looking back at the US experience in Somalia 10 years ago, Saddam Hussein thought he saw the key to winning a war with the United States. Mix his paramilitary forces among civilians, fade back into urban combat, and inflict more casualties than Americans back home could stomach. Then he'd count on the US to pull out, leaving the Iraqi leader in control of his country and more powerful than ever in the eyes of fellow Arabs across the region. It would be a Mogadishu redux.

What he apparently failed to realize was that the Pentagon and its political leaders had also learned important lessons from what had been a military disaster for the US in the streets of Somalia's coastal capital back in 1993.

Those lessons - about intelligence-gathering, a flexible mix of conventional and Special Operations forces, focusing on capturing or killing the enemy's leadership, and generating political will - now are focused on Mr. Hussein himself.

Those four 2,000-pound "bunker buster" bombs that rained down on the place where Hussein, his sons, and other important regime leaders were thought to be this week are the starkest evidence yet that these lessons have been effective. Yet throughout the war, this approach has been evident - particularly in the use of clandestine forces, now on the ascendancy within the military establishment.

Such units have seized airfields in southern and western Iraq, secured oil fields, landed transport aircraft on highways at night to disgorge Humvees and small bands of Special Operations troops, tapped into phones and computers, and prevented the launch of Scud missiles.

They also rescued Pfc. Jessica Lynch, tracked senior Baath Party members and Republican Guard officers for capture or killing, and secured suspected chemical and biological weapons sites. They're searching underground bunkers and tunnels, working with Iraqi informants, and recently intercepted communications leading them to believe that Hussein's son Qusay is running Iraq's security forces.

In the process, they've been working with British, Australian, and Polish Special Operations units. Together they total some 10,000 troops, the largest percentage of the overall force since the Vietnam War.

"It's probably the most effective and the widest use of Special Operations forces in recent history," says Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a Pentagon briefer who has commanded Army Ranger units.

'Inside their decision loop'

Whether or not the bombs targeting Hussein this week found their mark might never be known - at least until the fight for Baghdad is over and forensic evidence can be found. (US intelligence services are thought to have DNA samples from Hussein family members.) There is no certain evidence that Hussein or the regime's heirs are in control or even alive. And the pronouncements of the regime's official spokesman - Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf - have become a joke among journalists there.

But the attack itself illustrates one key aspect of US success so far: "getting inside their decision loop," as military officials put it. This means gathering enough reliable intelligence that coalition forces can act even before the enemy has made its next move.

Not long after main US forces entered Baghdad (perhaps even before), listening devices were placed in the building where leaders were expected to gather. Special Operations Forces likely had been tipped off by Iraqi collaborators and intercepted communications. But this also followed Hussein's pattern during the 1991 Gulf War: moving among ordinary residences once his palaces had been attacked.

Military officials don't have much to say publicly about such things. "We respond to opportunities," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at Central Command's daily press briefing in Qatar yesterday. "We had credible information that there was a regime leadership meeting taking place."

He also noted that "Special Operations Forces are now in place throughout Iraq."

Such forces are more robust and better-equipped than they were when the Army Rangers and Delta Force units fought the bloody (and ultimately unsuccessful) battle in Mogadishu that's become known as "Blackhawk Down." Their communications and night-vision gear is better, and they have access to real-time views of enemy territory, thanks to remote-controlled aircraft.

Above all, they've had sufficient backup from attack aircraft, main battle tanks, and artillery - none of which was available to them in Somalia.

The result, says Brig. Gen. Gary Harrell, commander of allied Special Operations Forces for the war with Iraq, is that these units "are doing things that have never been done on such a large scale and have produced phenomenal results."

A few mistakes

Not everything has gone perfectly. The US airstrike that hit a Kurdish convoy the other day may have been called in on the wrong spot by a Special Operations unit working with the Kurds. Such self-inflicted friendly fire also happened in Afghanistan. And although Baghdad is now surrounded, it is always possible that Saddam Hussein could slip away and continue taunting the US - as Osama bin Laden appears to have done.

Beneath the streets and buildings of Baghdad are thought to be miles of hardened bunkers and tunnels. Special Operations Forces may already be scouring those potential escape routes.

It's not over yet, but the way the US is conducting this war appears to be a combination of the military philosophies of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: overpowering conventional troops and weaponry (especially from the air), together with the unprecedented use of Special Operations and other light and maneuverable forces.

Military analysts no doubt will spend years studying the effects of that approach.

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