TAMPA, Fla.—Well before Americans saw the start of the ground and air war in Iraq, teams of U.S. special forces took control of Iraq's western desert—25 percent of the country, Gen. Tommy Franks said in his first interview detailing how the war was planned, fought and won.
War planners worried that Iraq might launch Scud missile attacks on Israel and Jordan from its western desert, so American forces had to infiltrate the area as quickly as possible to prevent a wider Middle East conflict, said Franks, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which was in charge of the war.
More than 50 12-member Special Forces A Teams and British and Australian special operations units secretly entered the Iraqi desert before the war officially started. On the first night they took out some 50 observation posts along the borders with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. On the second night, they destroyed another 50 observation posts, Franks said.
He didn't say whether the secret warriors found any Scuds; none were launched during the war.
In an exclusive 90-minute interview with Knight Ridder, Franks also said:
_In another secret prewar operation, American pilots, ostensibly flying missions to enforce the longstanding no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq, targeted Saddam's secure communications networks, fiber-optic cables that are hard to tap. With those channels destroyed, Saddam and his commanders were forced to use high frequency radio, which is easily intercepted.
_Franks used deception to pin down 13 Iraqi divisions in the north by keeping the equipment of the Army's 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) floating in the eastern Mediterranean Sea long after he knew he wouldn't be able to open a northern front. The Turkish government delayed and eventually denied permission to U.S. forces to move through its territory into northern Iraq.
"Part of that issue had to do with the fact that there were 11 regular Iraqi Army divisions and two Republican Guard divisions in the north and I wanted them to stay there. ... We wanted some uncertainty in the mind of Saddam Hussein ... so I kept the force waiting long past the point where I knew it would not be introduced in the north," Franks said.
_He hit a low point after the Army's 507th Maintenance Company, from Fort Bliss, Texas, was ambushed, "and I recognized that we were having our young people killed ... (and) captured." That coincided with three days of heavy sandstorms that hampered military operations.
The 507th was ambushed in southern Iraq on March 23. Pfc. Jessica Lynch and five others were taken captive and later freed; 11 soldiers were killed.
"As quickly as I tell you that, I will also tell you that there was never a doubt in mind that at the end of the day it would be exactly as our people said it would be: The regime would be gone, the Iraqi people would be free," Franks said. "A low point in terms of doubting, no sir, I never had it."
He added that on a particularly bad day he told his staff and the commanders: "Don't ever, ever second-guess what you are doing. You are doing a wonderful job. Get your heads up and it will turn out just fine."
_He did not clash with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over plans for the war. The Pentagon initially wanted to use fewer than 80,000 ground troops. A former Central Command staff had developed a plan calling for more than 500,000. The final plan, using 151,000, was a compromise developed over a long period of study and discussion, Franks said.
"There was not friction between Franks and Rumsfeld on this plan," he said. "This was a national plan. It involved the service chiefs; it involved the service secretaries; it involved the president himself; it involved Don Rumsfeld; it involved me; it involved all of our staffs. I think we benefited from the fact that we had a long planning cycle, an opportunity to get ready."
_Franks didn't doubt—and doesn't doubt today—that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "The intelligence, while not precise, was overwhelming. Still is to this day. ... We had a tremendous amount of information going back to 1991 that WMD were not only present but were being continually pursued by the regime," he said.
Franks will hand over his job early in July to Gen. John Abizaid, his deputy.
The 6-foot-2 Texan's retirement after 38 years of service, from private to four-star general, will take effect Aug. 1.
Early on in planning the Iraq war, Franks said, he identified five fronts: a northern front to protect the Kurds and oil fields; a southern front to seize oil fields and secure Basra and the port city of Umm Qasr; a western front in the desert; a Baghdad-Tikrit front to prevent Saddam from creating a last-ditch urban war nightmare; and an information war.
He sent more than 50 Army Special Forces A Teams and a Special Forces Group command into the Kurdish territories in the north and laid immediate plans to parachute in the 173rd Airborne Regiment from Italy. Those forces prosecuted the war in the north with the help of thousands of Kurdish guerrillas.
The Baghdad front posed special problems.
"We ... knew that there was a possibility that the regime could circle the wagons or create a fortress in their strategic center of gravity, which was the Baghdad-Tikrit area," Franks said.
He said he used air power to prevent Republican Guard divisions from falling back into Baghdad. Before the war started, the United States also was recruiting informants in Shiite Muslim areas "to create problems for the regime in Baghdad," which was largely Sunni Muslim.
A day before the war started, President Bush held a teleconference with Franks and all of his component commanders: air, naval, land and special operations.
"The president asked each of them, `What do you think of the strategy? What do you think of your current condition and stance?'" Franks said. "Each answered very positively with a crisp understanding of their current situation, a comfort level with forces, ROE (rules of engagement), and at the end of the conference, the president asked: `Any comments?'
"Historically, the record should reflect that this man was incredibly presidential. As he summed all this up and said, `I believe the military forces of the country are in position to do what must be done, so you have the execution order, H Hour will be this time.'"
Franks said he decided to advance the ground attack, G-Day, by 24 hours when intelligence showed Iraqi Army forces moving into the southern oil fields and preparing to destroy them. When the first three oil wellheads were set afire the general said go.
"The task given to Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the land forces commander, was to block and bypass enemy formations and to close on and isolate Baghdad as quickly as it could be done," Franks said.
The operation would have been a dangerous gamble if the 4th Mechanized Division, the 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment hadn't been either en route to the region or beginning to unload their equipment in Kuwait, he said.
"But the fact (that) the force that entered Iraq was the lead element of additional substantial combat power ... took the gamble out of the equation and placed the level at what I call prudent risk."
The information war had two legs: "As much silence as we could get in terms of public knowledge of the things I previously described, and deception, which we wanted to feed into the Iraqi regime ... that would cause either uncertainty or chaos," said Franks.
Franks said one of the revolutionary elements that guided the attack and greatly aided command and control was a "blue tracking system" that enabled his commanders and him to see the location and movement of friendly forces down to platoon level. "It is the first time in our history that we have ever employed such a thing for large conventional forces," Franks said.
Once, as he watched the screen, he saw a small blue icon that showed where a company-sized unit was, eight to 10 miles in front of a large bunch of blue dots, moving up Highway 8 to the southern part of Baghdad and heading for the airport. It was one of the units of the 3rd Squadron, 7th U.S. Cavalry.
Franks channel-surfed on screens that had satellite links to all the television networks until he found the embedded reporter with that unit, CNN's Walter Rodgers.
"He was reporting live a thunder run down Highway 8, talking as they were shooting, and it was this particular unit I was watching on the panel."
Franks also spoke extensively about how the plan to prosecute the war came into being.
He inherited an Iraq war-contingency plan from his CentCom predecessors that essentially called for a rerun of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, with a very heavy 500,000-man American force. In December 2001, at President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Franks briefed Bush on that off-the-shelf plan.
Almost immediately Franks was presented with a plan to send in fewer than 80,000 American ground troops, supported by a heavy air campaign. Although Franks didn't specify where that plan came from, there has long been speculation that it was developed in Rumsfeld's office.
The war plan that was executed in March evolved after a year of study, four or five visits by Franks to Bush, and frequent phone conferences among his headquarters, the Pentagon and the White House.
Franks said that while the planning continued he ordered a virtually invisible shifting of assets from Qatar to Kuwait, moving more heavy Army equipment to Kuwait and emptying warehouses at a U.S. base in Qatar so they could be prepared to house a wartime command center.
The general said that in creating the war plan everyone involved examined a long list of what-ifs: urban warfare, use of weapons of mass destruction, burning the oil fields, launching Scuds.
"There was never any doubt in my mind that the quality of people, command and control, the equipment and the depth of resolve of our country took this beyond the point of negotiation before the fight ever started. If we fight, we win."