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British use snatch operations in Basra to rattle Saddam loyalists, gain intelligence

SHUAIBA, Iraq—Wearing night-vision goggles, British commandos waded through swampy, knee-deep mud. They slipped into the besieged city of Basra and slowly closed in on their target.

The Iraqi militia leader was in his house, sound asleep, his gun by his side.

"We burst in, kicked the door down and dragged him out," said Capt. Craig Taylor of the 1st Fusiliers Y Company. "As we withdrew, we laid down fire on anything and everything, so these buildings would never be used again."

The snatch operation last week was one of many that British forces have conducted deep in Iraq's second largest city in a war of attrition aimed at Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and militia. The raids are designed to rattle Saddam loyalists and gain intelligence for a future push to take control of Basra.

"It unnerves them," said Maj. Paul Nanson, who leads the 1st Fusiliers Y Company. "The next night they probably don't sleep very well."

The unconventional tactics are the clearest sign yet of the kind of conflict in Basra. On the other side, Iraqis are using everything from civilian human shields to offering bounties for dead coalition troops.

On Tuesday, a teenager in military combat pants and boots with two bayonets clinging to his belt tried to break into the Fusiliers' base in the small village of Shuaiba. He was chanting "For the love of Saddam," and apparently had received hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dinars—a fortune here—to assassinate a coalition soldier. Villagers spotted him and told the British soldiers. It took five soldiers to subdue him.

"We're targeting them the same way they are targeting us," Nanson said.

The snatch operation began in the early hours of the night last Friday. A key Iraqi militia had been shelling soldiers with mortars repeatedly on the al Garma Bridge in northern Basra. The coalition had tried everything to stop the militia, including bombing and sending British Challenger and Warrior tanks to shell the location.

It didn't work. It was time to take out the militia, Nanson decided.

He sent his intelligence operatives to find out where the militia leader lived. Then he put together a crack team of 25 of his best men.

A few hours before the operation, they practiced. Then they had 90 minutes to get their gear ready.

"Everybody knew exactly what they were doing," said Taylor, who was part of the team.

They moved single file in the still darkness. Most of the men used only what little natural light there was to follow one another on foot. For nearly two miles, they walked on terrain that felt like a swamp, Taylor recalled.

As they neared the target, one member of the team began receiving heat-sensitive images on a video device from a spy plane overhead, showing the house, the guards, vehicles, anything that moved.

Armed with this information, it was time for the snatch. Nanson called in an artillery strike to the left of and behind the house as a diversion. Seven commandos then rushed in with their guns poised and grabbed the Iraqi militia leader.

Two other men in the house ran out the back door. They were killed by more artillery strikes, Taylor said. After making sure all their soldiers were accounted for, the British called in Cobra helicopters to finish destroying the houses, Nanson said.

The Iraqi militia leader didn't resist as the British soldiers dragged him away. He was taken on a different route to military vehicles waiting to collect the team.

"He was deeply in shock," Taylor said. "There were artillery rounds landing everywhere. If he had screamed, it would have been to no avail."

The snatch, which took nearly three hours, appeared to have had an effect, at least temporarily. The mortars stopped raining down on the soldiers for a few days.

"In effect, you're making the enemy blind," Taylor said. "They may know you're there, but they don't know what you got and where."

Nanson said the militia leader gave them lots of vital intelligence. He is now a POW at a holding facility operated by the coalition forces.

"He sang like a canary," Taylor said, with pride. "Everything went like clockwork."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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