Monday, June 9, 2003

U.S. commandos prepared for the worst when they stormed an Iraqi hospital April 1 to free Pfc. Jessica Lynch, even positioning a potent AC-130 gunship overhead to kill any enemy forces who intervened.

It marked the first time in decades that Special Operations Forces had penetrated enemy lines and rescued a prisoner of war. They wanted to videotape the mission for the history books, said a senior Special Operations official on the condition of anonymity.

“It was a cool thing to do,” he said, adding that scores of Special Operations missions were captured by combat cameramen during the war as part of a Pentagon program to document events and learn from mistakes.

Special Operations and defense officials discussed the mission in interviews this week to rebut what they consider an inaccurate report by the British Broadcasting Corp.

The state-supported network, whose coverage was generally critical of the war in Iraq, charged that the U.S. Central Command staged the mission as a public relations stunt. It also said the commandos fired blanks inside Pfc. Lynch’s hospital prison for cinematic effect.

U.S. officials have adamantly denied the charge. They say no shots — blanks or otherwise — were fired by the Navy SEAL-led team inside Saddam Hospital in Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad.

After Baghdad fell April 9, the same specially trained SEAL unit went on to capture the majority of wanted senior Iraqi leaders on Central Command’s “deck of cards.” In Afghanistan, some of the SEALs had comprised Task Force 11, a secret unit dedicated to catching senior al Qaeda terrorists.

“These are not the type of guys who carry blanks,” an official said.

Officials said no resistance emerged when the SEALs and Army Rangers entered and found Pfc. Lynch.

They added, however, that the hospital had served as a command post for the Iraqi military. Based on that fact, basic military-planning doctrine mandated that commanders assume the worst might happen. As a result, they sent in a well-armed, sizable force to rescue the 19-year-old Army maintenance private, who lay in a hospital bed, immobilized by multiple bone fractures.

“They were not going in there to play tag. They were going in there with the thought that their lives are on the line,” said a senior Special Operations official. “At every turn of a corner, it was discovered Iraqi military routinely used hospitals and schools and mosques, places clearly outside the normal redoubt as fighting positions. We had every reason to believe this hospital contained hostile forces.”

The BBC leveled its charges based, in part, on the fact the Americans faced no resistance inside the hospital and because Central Command released edited video clips of the rescue mission to the media. The BBC said the U.S. team simply could have walked into the undefended hospital and fetched the prisoner of war.

But U.S. officials respond to that charge by saying that military planners, who are responsible for their commandos’ lives, did not know who was in the hospital.

At the time of the April 1 rescue, Nasiriyah remained a hot war zone and dangerous place. Just eight days before, 18 U.S. service members were killed, nine alone in the Iraqi ambush of Pfc. Lynch’s 507th Maintenance Company convoy.

The BBC report has spurred at least one charge by liberal columnist Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times that the U.S. military staged the event. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat and a candidate for president, last week suggested the same and demanded the release of the entire video.

Defense officials said in interviews they can’t discuss the rescue in detail because it involves one of their covert units: Navy SEALs from the supersecret Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. The base is home to counterterrorism SEALs and the Army’s legendary Delta Force.

The BBC report has stirred anger in “commando country,” as Fort Bragg is known.

Said an Army Green Beret: “They didn’t meet much of any resistance in the hospital, but without that knowledge in advance, you play it for real and assume that half the Iraqi army is in there.”

A transcript of Central Command’s war briefing the day after Pfc. Lynch was rescued shows no exaggeration of events.

“We were successful in that operation last night,” Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said, “and did retrieve Pfc. Lynch, bringing her away from that location of danger, clearing the building of some of the military activity that was in there. There was not a firefight inside of the building, I will tell you, but there were firefights outside of the building, getting in and getting out.”

Gen. Brooks correctly said there was no shooting inside the hospital. Concerning firefights outside, U.S. officials now say there was an exchange of fire between soldiers protecting the hospital’s outer perimeter and Iraqi paramilitaries.

Asked who had been holding Pfc. Lynch, Gen. Brooks said: “It was regime forces that had been in there. Indications are they were paramilitaries, but we don’t know exactly who. They’ve apparently moved most of them out before we arrived to get in, although, as I mentioned, there were buildings outside of the Saddam Hospital, where we received fire.”

The team arrived at night via Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Rangers guarded the immediate perimeter, while SEALs and other Rangers went inside. Marines less than a mile away created a diversion by firing weapons. Military officials at two bases in the United States watched and listened to the mission live, although officials declined to identify the bases.

U.S. forces also excavated the bodies of nine service members in a nearby grave. Some appeared to have been executed with a shot to the forehead.

Since the BBC aired its charges, the Pentagon has been trying to set the record straight.

“This was a script made for Hollywood, made by the Pentagon,” is how BBC reporter John Kampfner described the rescue in his May 15 report.

Mr. Kampfner subsequently appeared on CNN International but seemed to back off his charge that the mission was staged.

He said: “Our contention, however, and what the doctors in the Iraqi hospital were saying to us was, that after the event the Pentagon should have said rather than portraying this as a great act of heroism, soldiers in great danger coming under fire, they should have said that is what we expected, that is the information that we were led to believe before the raid, but actually we could have just gone in there, opened the door.”

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, appeared on the same CNN program to rebut Mr. Kampfner’s reporting. Mr. Whitman said that an Iraqi doctor telling the team no enemy was inside would not justify commandos’ letting down their guard.

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