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 long-standing 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 on March 23 in southern Iraq. Pfc. Patrick Miller, of Valley Center, Kan., 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 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.