Inside the Chinook helicopter, the noise of the twin rotors hammers around the fuselage. On the hard metal seats, six men sit largely silent, the din drowning out conversation.
In their minds they are running through procedures as the moment of truth approaches. It’s dark outside and the helicopter is scudding across the desert barely 50ft off the ground. At some point it crosses into enemy territory.
The SAS patrol is fully equipped to operate in secret behind enemy lines. Each man is loaded with weapons, ammunition and other gear. They carry American M16 assault rifles, automatic pistols and fighting knives, but hope they won’t have to use the weapons — at least for now. Despite their loads, they have to move fast when they land.
The helicopter touches down for no more than a few minutes. The SAS men scramble out of the back. Within moments the Chinook is off and the patrol is left alone, isolated and reliant, despite its sophisticated communications, on its skill and wits.
That is how one former SAS man recalled last week being sent on a patrol behind enemy lines. This week other members of the regiment face the same challenge as they go into Iraq to pave the way for an allied invasion.
Other special forces, including members of the Special Boat Squadron, are also believed to be venturing deep into Iraq by sailing in dhows up the Euphrates. Their mission is to prepare the way for ground forces with heavy armour if there is an invasion.
The American and British forces must secure bridges to cross the Euphrates, which would stand in the path of an advance from Kuwait towards Baghdad. Another role for special forces will be to secure dams higher up the river to prevent them being destroyed, which would send flood waters surging south, by a retreating Iraqi army.
“They are casing the joint,” is how one Pentagon planner put it last week. Others call it the secret war that has already begun. As the world has agonised over whether the United Nations weapons inspectors should be given more time, the allies have been covertly preparing for invasion.
Alongside the SAS and SBS, US special forces have also been operating in Iraq. They have been under strict orders to avoid any “contacts”, since Washington does not want the embarrassment of seeing any captured soldiers paraded in Baghdad while diplomacy continues.
“That would not be fun,” said Daniel Goure, a defence specialist with the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank, last week. “It would look like we’re starting the war early.”
LAST autumn the SAS trained in the deserts of Oman. They attacked mocked-up mobile Scud missile carriers and simulated gun battles with the sort of lasers and breastplates used in the Quasar skirmish game.
About a month ago two full SAS Sabre squadrons (some 200 men) were flown into Kuwait, Jordan and Kurdistan on C-130 transport planes. A third squadron is on 24-hour standby at the regimental headquarters in Hereford.
Since the Gulf war, technological advances have improved the chances of patrols avoiding detection when being dropped in dangerous areas. Such operations are fraught with danger: Saddam is reportedly offering a £15m bounty to the first Iraqi soldier who successfully shoots down an allied aircraft.
To avoid Iraqi air defences, the Chinooks have been fitted with new “defensive aid suites”, which allow them to jam hostile radar systems. They are guided by infrared radar that helps them find their target landing area without alerting the enemy.
In a typical operation, SAS sources said last week, small groups of soldiers are dropped into the desert equipped with survival kits, search-and- rescue beacons, water, ammunition and weapons. Besides rifles, each patrol usually takes along an M79 grenade launcher and Minimi Colt light machinegun.
Operating under the cloak of darkness, they wear advanced night-vision goggles to spot the enemy before it sees them. By the time the sun rises in the morning, they have returned to base or are holed up in a concealed position.
Each member of a patrol has a special area of expertise, such as explosives, communications or field surgery, and they are all expected to be decision makers, enabling them to work without a senior officer on hand.
The precise nature of their missions is, as ever, a secret. But former soldiers say they will certainly be attempting to glean information on Iraqi airfields, troop positions, minefields and supply routes for both targeting and future tactical purposes.
They will be assisted by some of the best spy technology available, such as motion sensors and other communications devices on roads used for military movements. They may also deploy sensors to give advance warning of the use of chemical or biological weapons.
Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are one of their main priorities, not only because of the threat they pose to advancing allied troops but also because of their propaganda value when discovered. Proof that Saddam has been hiding WMDs could prove decisive in swaying international opinion behind the war.
A number of dual-use facilities — such as air-raid shelters that have been used before by Saddam to hide weapons — are being regularly monitored to determine whether they should be targeted.
The SAS is also believed to have been given the crucial role, along with US special forces, of monitoring Iraq’s oilfields in the southwest and north of the country to guard against possible sabotage.
Destruction of the oilfields is a serious threat. Iraq’s wells are highly pressurised and, if ignited, could be more difficult to extinguish than those in Kuwait that were set on fire during the Gulf war in 1991.
Special forces have been identifying landing sites and plotting targets for air attacks so that the oilfields can be taken immediately after war is declared. Precise global positioning satellite co-ordinates have been fed back to the command headquarters.
Other missions have been to recruit and equip Saddam’s opponents. According to special forces sources, hundreds of Kurds and Arabs have for a long time been recruited in Kurdistan by local middlemen and taken to the Arbil province in the north of the country to be trained by the British and Americans. They have been supplied with arms, instructions and money.
In some cases, small groups of hand-picked opponents of Saddam’s regime have apparently been smuggled out of Iraq by MI6 and the CIA for special training in a third country, possibly Britain. The groups are taught how to cause disruption and confusion by attacking vital installations including communications posts, telephone exchanges, electricity outlets, water and oil pipelines. Other groups are being trained to operate in urban areas where the allies may be reluctant to engage in street fighting.
The Americans are also deploying a crack unit of special forces known as the Weathermen. Though trained killers and regular soldiers, their prime function is to send meteorological reports from behind enemy lines.
If there is a chemical attack, knowing the direction and speed of the wind could save lives.
AS THE countdown to war continues, the unacknowledged battle is also being fought in the air and in the minds of the Iraqis. In recent weeks there has been a huge increase in flights over the “no-fly” zones which are intended to protect Shi’ite and Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq.
Last week allied planes struck five military targets including fibre-optic communications centres near Al Kut, about 95 miles southeast of Baghdad, and a military command and control centre near Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. Iraq claimed the Basra raid killed six people and left 15 wounded. The allies insist the targets were hit because they threatened the safe operation of the zones.
The no-fly zones have also given the Americans an opportunity to undermine the morale of the Iraqi troops through its “psy-ops” campaign. Millions of leaflets have been dropped urging them to surrender.
“Leave now and go home . . . watch your children learn, grow and prosper,” urges one of the leaflets. “Do not risk your life . . . and the lives of your comrades” urges another with a picture of Iraqi soldiers. One has an ominous picture of soldiers in gas masks and carries the warning: “Any unit that chooses to use weapons of mass destruction will face swift and severe retribution by coalition forces. Unit commanders will be held accountable if weapons of mass destruction are used.”
The Americans are also thought to have acquired the e-mail addresses of Iraqi generals so that they can send messages offering amnesty if they defect.
As the diplomats count down to a final deadline for Saddam to disarm, the prospect of hostilities looms closer. If the invasion begins for real, special forces are again likely to be at the forefront, guiding the airstrikes onto key targets.
British military sources have confirmed that SAS and US special forces will also have a role in the hunt to find evidence that Iraq has harboured chemical and biological weapons. Clean-up teams will ransack buildings for documents and computer hard drives that could help win the propaganda war for the allies.
Possibly the hardest mission has been reserved for America’s most secretive special unit, Delta Force.
“The Pentagon won’t discuss Delta,” said Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, an account of US special forces in Somalia. “I suspect Delta would be employed to disable missile sites, weapons storage facilities and seize oilfields. Anything highly critical that would require stealth and speed.”
But there is one key mission that Bowden believes Delta may be given specifically: “To target Saddam and members of his inner circle”.
Additional reporting: Peter Almond