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Who dares mutinies: How the SAS defied orders to launch the most audacious rescue of the Iraq war
At Credenhill camp, their UK base near Hereford, officers and troopers of 22 SAS were on parade in their best bib and tucker. Their usual jeans and combat overalls were replaced by spotless dress uniforms for a ceremony to consecrate a new resting place for the regiment’s fallen heroes. But then the quiet was shattered by dozens of mobile phones ringing.
Nearly 3,000 miles away in hot, dusty Southern Iraq, two of their own were in desperate trouble. Captured by insurgents, banged up in a cell and physically beaten, they were under threat of summary execution.
Even worse, the message coming along the grapevine was that nothing much was being done by British forces in Basra to save them. There was every chance, it seemed, that the new graveyard would soon be getting its first occupants.
What was particularly frustrating was that a situation like this was meat and drink to the honed and highly motivated men of the special forces.
The SAS had won its unrivalled public reputation by springing the hostages from the siege of the Iranian embassy in London back in 1980. Surely they could do the same for their own guys in Iraq, in 2005?
Except that no one, it appeared, would authorise such a mission.
The SAS needed clearance from defence chiefs in Britain but, concerned about the effects an assault might have on the fragile political set-up in Basra, they were sitting on their hands. The word coming from the top was that there were more important issues at stake than the lives of two soldiers.
The troopers were furious. No wonder that — as the Daily Mail exclusively revealed last week — the SAS came close to mutiny.
Its officers talked of resigning their commissions; among the men, there were mutterings about going on strike until the Government showed some bottle. After all, the nature of the job meant any one of them could find themselves in a similar situation.
Earlier that day, September 19, the two soldiers in question — a staff sergeant and a lance corporal — had been in a beat up local car cruising through the dusty Basra streets on a covert surveillance mission.
With a handful of colleagues in a second car, they comprised the total SAS contingent in Basra, the southern city where 8,500 British troops were tasked to back up the local police force in maintaining some semblance of order in post-Saddam Iraq.
The main SAS presence, known as Task Force Black, was based in Baghdad, engaged alongside U.S. special forces in a full- on covert war against Al-Qaeda. To the SAS, Basra was a backwater, where its tiny force’s main job was protecting MI6 agents.
For the Army there, however, the pressing issue was the loyalty of the local police they were trying to train. And whether they were, in fact, secretly in league with the increasingly unruly Shia militiamen, the so-called Mahdi Army.
To that end, the SAS patrol was out early, keeping tabs on a dodgy police captain. Disguised as Arabs, their job was simply to find out where he lived so that the Army could snatch him.
They had done that — ‘finished the serial’, in SAS speak — and were heading back to base when the first car turned a corner and ran straight into a police checkpoint.
This was no random stop-and-search. Suspicion was two way traffic in Iraq, and the police had been watching the watchers. They moved in, rifles readied, and motioned the occupants out of their car.
The hands of the SAS men reached for hidden weapons. There was no knowing who these men manning the barricade really were.
Shots rang out from both sides in a firefight that resulted in one policeman being killed and three more being wounded.
The SAS car roared away from the scene in clouds of dust, police vehicles hot on its tail.
But there was no escape. Their dog of a car was no match for the souped-up police vehicles. The sergeant and lance-corporal just had time to radio in their position before skidding to a halt and getting out, hands in the air, hoping to talk their way out of trouble.
Their captors were in no mood for negotiations. They grabbed the British soldiers, hustled them into their vehicles and sped away.
The men in the other, undetected SAS car stayed at a distance and tracked the convoy to the walled compound of the Jamiat police station, where they saw their comrades being bundled inside.
Here was a situation guaranteed to fill the minds of the British military with dread. Seared in the collective memory were the two corporals in plain clothes murdered by a mob of IRA supporters in Belfast in 1988.
More recently, in June 2003, six military policemen in the Basra region had been captured by militants and butchered. The failure to mount an operation in time to rescue them had shocked the ranks. Was a repeat really going to be allowed to happen?
The news of their colleagues’ capture raced round A Squadron, the main SAS force, at their base in Baghdad, a luxury villa that had once belonged to a sidekick of Saddam’s.
Two dozen troopers kitted up and, together with a logistical back-up team, made for the nearby airport and a waiting Hercules transport plane. Soon they were in the air and heading south to Basra.
By contrast, the wheels of officialdom were grinding more slowly. The British Embassy’s response was to contact the Iraqi Interior Ministry and make a formal request for the men’s release. They might as well have sent a postcard for all the good it would do.
Meanwhile, in Basra, a 100-strong Quick Reaction Force of Coldstream Guards was soon on its way to the police station.
It had no instructions to mount a rescue operation — it had just been ordered to contain the situation by cordoning off the building.
Inside the police station, in a room on the top floor, the two SAS men were stripped down to their T-shirts. Punched and kicked, they were accused of being Israeli spies.
This being the age of 24-hour TV, their captors went for instant publicity. Slumped on chairs, the two men, their faces bloodied, were filmed alongside the weapons and radio equipment captured with them. The images shot around the world.
To watchers from the Army — and particularly the SAS — the pictures were deeply worrying. The incident was swiftly getting out of control.
And to make matters worse, the square outside the police station was filling with angry Iraqis.
Rumours spread like a firestorm through the predominantly Shi’ite area and they came in their hundreds to demand vengeance for the death of the policeman at the road block.
Major James Woodham of the Royal Anglian Regiment arrived outside the police station to find a near riot.
He regularly liaised with the local police, and he was sent by his Army superiors to get inside and use his contacts to defuse the situation.
But the gates were closed in his face, and he saw machine guns mounted on the roof, aiming at the thin line of nervous British soldiers, many experiencing their first confrontation with stone-throwing Iraqis.
Nor was there much prospect of the situation cooling as reinforcements were on their way — for both sides. Helicopters were ferrying in more troops and the British force would eventually number 600.
They were matched by Muslim militiamen, who sped to the scene in trucks. Youths poured petrol into bottles to make firebombs. Somewhere in the hostile crowd, which was growing by the minute, were rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles.
The cool-headed Major used all his negotiating skills to talk his way inside. He was taken to see the two men. ‘They were pleased to see me,’ he recalled. His presence seemed to reassure them that steps were being taken for their release. Weren’t they?
Major Woodham quickly cleared up the matter of identity. The prisoners were not spies but British soldiers, he told the Iraqi police. But this made no difference. The police were insisting that an investigating judge should interrogate the two men.
Out of his depth with these legal matters, the Major sent for an Arab-speaking Army lawyer to continue the negotiations.
Out at the UK base at Basra airport, the commander of A Squadron was pleading with the acting British field commander, Brigadier John Lorimer, for permission to send his SAS troops to the rescue.
The TV images indicated that the two men were in acute danger. At the very least, there was the risk of an embarrassing show trial broadcast across the world.
Or worse — 18 months earlier, militants had kept the cameras rolling as they sawed off the head of a captured U.S. civilian worker.
But the Ministry of Defence in London and the Joint Operations Headquarters at Northwood just outside the capital instructed Brigadier Lorimer not to do anything that might inflame matters.
Back at the police station, the lawyer had arrived, a glamorous female soldier, Major Rabia Siddique.
In the intimidating crowd of police around her, she spotted the faces of known Islamic militants.
As a Muslim woman, she felt extremely vulnerable. At one stage, she was spat at and called ‘a whore’.
But she stood her ground. For an hour she argued with the judge that the men were protected by a legal agreement between the Iraqi government and Coalition Forces, and should be released.
Asking for proof that the prisoners were still alive, she was taken to a cell, where they were huddled in a corner, chained up and blindfolded. ‘They were dragged over and plonked in front of me,’ she recalled. ‘I told them not to worry, that we’d get them out.’
But that prospect seemed slimmer than ever as, outside the station, a full-scale battle was breaking out. In the blazing heat, British troops tried to contain the waves of rioters surging towards them. Soldiers opened fire on the petrol bombers, and the casualties they inflicted further enraged the mob.
As the fighting spread in the narrow Basra backstreets, a Warrior armoured carrier was hit. A soldier was seized by the pursuing mob and beaten until he was unconscious. With machine guns blazing, he was rescued by comrades who dragged him away by his hair.
Another Warrior took a direct hit and a ball of fire shot up from the turret. Soldiers came cannoning out through the air, frantically beating out the flames with their hands.
In all, 19 British soldiers were badly wounded that day. The miracle, given the ferocity of the encounters, was that none died.
All this was captured on cameras in a Predator ‘spy-in-the-sky’ drone cruising overhead and flashing its pictures back to base and to armchair commanders in England.
But as the situation on the ground worsened by the minute, still nobody could be found to authorise a rescue mission. To this day, SAS sources believe a senior officer who could have made a decision was on the golf course and had his mobile phone switched off.
The implication is that he was deliberately not contactable.
There are now charges — from Tory MP Adam Holloway in a hard-hitting report on the incident — that politics were at the root of this studied inactivity.
The comforting picture presented by the MoD and the Government to the British people was of ‘our boys in Basra’ not at war but training and mentoring the Iraqi police.
This clear indication that local police — their ranks riddled with insurgents — were the problem rather than the solution, was a blow to that strategy. If two soldiers had to be sacrificed so as not to rock the boat, then so be it.
Inside the police station, things were in fact looking up as Major Siddique’s negotiations seemed to be making progress. The judge was willing to hand over the men into her custody in return for a signed letter from the Iraqi government authorising their release.
The letter was said to be on its way, if only a courier could get through the baying mob camped outside.
But then the mood changed dramatically. Dozens of militia in plain clothes poured into the room. She heard shouting and the ominous rattle of machine guns being primed. Pistols were waved in the air.
It was clear this was no longer a police matter. Shia militiamen were taking over. ‘I tried to carry on talking to the judge but he said: “I’m sorry. It’s no longer in my hands.” I felt control slipping through my fingers. I was afraid,’ said Major Siddique.
The intruders grabbed the two soldiers and took them away. Major Siddique was sure they were about to be shot. In fact, their captors — fearing a helicopter assault — had decided to move them to a safe house. They bundled them downstairs, dressed them in ankle-length Arab clothes and covered their heads with blankets as they emerged into the yard.
A scuffle broke out. The SAS men, co-operative until now, were not going quietly.
It was a good job they fought back, because overhead a keen-eyed observer in a circling Sea King helicopter spotted the fracas as the men were forced into the boots of waiting cars and driven away.
He relayed his commentary back to base — where SAS commanders realised time was running out.
From mobile phone calls intercepted by high-tech eavesdroppers, they discovered who had their boys — a militant group calling itself Iraqi Hezbollah. It didn’t augur well.
By now, the SAS force from Baghdad had arrived and was deployed a few miles away from the Jamiat police station. They were incandescent that political matters were reining them in. All they needed was the ‘go’ command.
And then they got it, in defiance of Whitehall — though precisely from whom remains unclear.
Some sources indicate it was the SAS commander on the spot who made the call. But other accounts say it was Brigadier Lorimer who seized the initiative by ordering an armoured column of regular forces to take the police station.
With helicopters buzzing overhead, Warriors and Challenger tanks brushed aside the crowds outside and crashed through the walls into the compound. Snatch squads burst into every room, ostensibly looking for the two SAS captives.
But the attack on the station — which Iraqi officials denounced as ‘barbaric, savage and irresponsible’ — was a feint. The real rescue mission was centred on a house nearby, where the SAS knew their men had been taken.
It was a classic assault of the type that they had practised so many times in the so- called Killing House at Hereford, blowing out windows and doors, hurling in stun grenades and storming in through the dust and smoke.
There was no opposition. In a locked bathroom, they found the sergeant and lance-corporal, bound but safe and alive. The militants holding them had melted away into the night.
In the aftermath of this success, all the supposed difficulties that had surrounded it melted away, too.
The rescue mission mysteriously assumed the mantle of having been authorised all along. A veil was drawn over the indecision of the top-brass back home.
But the SAS knew the truth — and at least one senior officer had now had enough of being a political pawn. In his report, Holloway reveals that the commander on the ground, who risked his career by going ahead with the rescue, subsequently left the Army because he was ‘disillusioned at the degeneration of the moral backbone of the British military generalship in the heart of Whitehall’.
The regiment had their men back, but no thanks, they felt, to high-ups on their own side. As the SAS motto goes, who dares wins — but it’s a damned sight harder if your hands are tied behind your back.
This proves one thing, the last government thought so little of our lads and lasses out there that they would let 2 of them die, just to keep the locals happy.
The following is taken from The Military Covenant
Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices - including the ultimate sacrifice - in the service of the Nation. In putting the needs of the Nation and the Army before their own, they fore go some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces. In return, British soldiers must always be able to expect fair treatment, to be valued and respected as individuals, and that they (and their families) will be sustained and rewarded by commensurate terms and conditions of service.
'Fair treatment and to be valued and respected', someone forgot about that on this day.
This must be just one of hundreds of examples of how the last government thought of our military.
Let's hope this new government will show the military the respect they deserve.