Page last updated at 03:46 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 04:46 UK

'Ambush' that left SAS trooper dead

By Paul Wood
Middle East correspondent, BBC News

British forces in Iraq
The SAS form part of the British operation in Iraq

A British soldier killed in Iraq two weeks ago turned out to be an SAS man. What does it say about British special forces in Iraq, and the Anglo-American coalition's chances of defeating insurgency?

The press release said simply: "It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the death of a British soldier in Iraq today, 26 March 2008. The soldier died as a result of gunshot wounds sustained during a firefight in the early hours of this morning."

The soldier was from the SAS. The firefight also left four other SAS troopers injured. Two insurgents were killed but as many as nine civilians also died, including a four-month-old baby.

The engagement ended with an airstrike. The full story reveals a lot about the way the coalition is fighting the counter-insurgency war in Iraq - and the chances for eventual success.

MoD "sources" said the SAS man had died not in Basra, where most of the British troops in Iraq are based, but in Baghdad. In fact, this was untrue.

The soldier was killed further north, in a heavily Sunni area where a sizeable contingent of the SAS has been working in secret alongside American special forces.

The MoD has asked us not to give exact details of the location, so as not to compromise future missions, but it is clear that UK special forces have been operating far more extensively in Iraq than previously known.

Bomb-making team

We have not been able to interview any of the SAS soldiers involved. But we have had a detailed account from senior American officers who are familiar with what happened.

We have also spoken to Iraqi eyewitnesses. At the request of defence officials in London, we have removed several details which were described as operationally sensitive.

Early in March, the coalition says an insurgent bomb-making team moved from Baghdad to a heavily Sunni area outside the capital.

They found a house in one of the nicest parts of town and got to work. It seemed, said one US officer I spoke to, that the whole neighbourhood knew they were there.

This represented a huge failure for the coalition, since the neighbourhood included the city's Iraqi police chief, who lived opposite the house, the commander of the local Iraqi Swat team, who was just as close, and a judge.

The officer told me: "This target was surrounded by the Iraqi police, authority figures, a judge. My question to them was and has been for the past week: 'How come all the local civilians... know all these people came in and don't belong here but you as commanders of police don't go in there and check it out?'"

One very damaging possibility is that the local police knew all along, and turned a blind eye as long as the bombs were intended for coalition soldiers and not their own men.

Similar deals have been done by the Iraqi police in the past in this part of the country.

House surrounded

The coalition's whole strategy in Iraq is to hand over to the local security forces, but five years into the occupation many are still judged privately to be incompetent or untrustworthy.

In this part of Iraq, the insurgents pass easily through police checkpoints with the payment of small bribes, say coalition officers. Sometimes the police actively help the insurgents.

Coalition forces, including the SAS, surrounded the house, a little before 0200 local time on 26 March.

After a short wait, the SAS men stormed in. They ran into a withering crossfire
Paul Wood
BBC News

An interpreter called over a tannoy for the men - there were two "targets" - to surrender, or at least to let the women and children come out. There was no reply from inside the house.

At one stage the coalition forces also threw "flash bangs" - percussion grenades - through the front portico to ensure there was no confusion about which house was being targeted.

They wanted to make sure that the people inside knew all the shouts from the tannoy weren't meant for next door, giving them every chance to surrender. This is a detail which will become important later on.

After a short wait, the SAS men stormed in. They ran into a withering crossfire. Four troopers were injured. One was killed.

Women and children

A US officer involved in the investigation the Americans carried out afterwards told me: "They ran into an ambush. I mean the guys got it from both sides.

"When they were pulling themselves out of the house, these guys were throwing grenades out of the window at them and shooting at them and ended up killing one and injuring four."

He went on: "There were only two bad guys, but we could not get them [our soldiers] out without some type of suppressing fire so then we had to use aircraft to shoot at the house.

"Then some other fire came from another house right next door so the aircraft [using] precision firing was able to isolate those two houses and just pummel them."

The aircraft fired 40mm cannon rounds at the two houses, finally dropping a bomb on one of them. It collapsed. The other house was set on fire.

The two insurgents in the house were buried but so were a number of women and children.

A US press release said later: "When coalition forces arrived at the target location, they were engaged with small arms fire by a hostile force.

"Responding to the threat, coalition forces returned fire and called in a supporting fixed-wing aircraft.

"After the airstrike, coalition forces continued to receive heavy enemy fire as armed terrorists ran from the target and attempted to hide in neighbouring homes, using the occupants as shields."

Human shields

In fact, two men and a number of women ran out of the back of the house. It seems that a four-year-old baby girl was given by her mother to another woman. This woman, and the baby, were both shot as they ran.

The American officer told me that had happened because the men were using them as cover: "When they came out of the house, the men were in amongst the women, shielding themselves.

"You don't do that; we would never shield ourselves with women and kids. It is not acceptable but they'll do it, the insurgents will do it, especially the bad ones."

The SAS killed two 'bombmakers'. They may have created many more
Paul Wood
BBC News

The senior US officer I spoke to wasn't sure if weapons were found next to the bodies of the two men who ran out of the house with the women and children - in other words, if they were insurgents or civilians.

While the official US press release describes "armed terrorists" running from the building who "attempted to hide in neighbouring homes, using the occupants as shields", it also says: "Preliminary assessment indicates that despite coalition forces' efforts to protect them, several civilians were injured or killed during the ensuing gun battle."

The press release continued: "The ground force treated the wounded on site and transported them to a military medical facility.

"Coalition forces make every effort to protect civilians during our operations, but al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorists continue to place women and children in harm's way while they plan and conduct their brutal attacks.

"The Multi-national Force-Iraq sincerely regrets when civilians are wounded or killed and their families have our heartfelt condolences."

Angry and emotional

By the coalition's count, seven female civilians were killed, including three children. One was the baby.

Two men identified as bombmakers, the target of the operation, were dead inside the house, their bodies later recovered by the Iraqi police.

We sent an Iraqi cameraman to interview local people at the scene. His pictures show one house blackened by fire, the other collapsed from the airstrike.

In that house, a mangled child's cot, and the Iraqi version of the cabbage patch doll can be seen half-buried in the rubble.

There were angry and emotional scenes outside. The unanimous opinion was that an innocent family had been slaughtered.

People spoke of 100 soldiers surrounding the two houses, of tanks firing shells, of rockets from helicopters.

Two weeks later, women and children were still traumatized by what they had seen and heard, local people said.

'No shooting'

The "flash-bangs" thrown by the SAS to warn the family to get out were seen by the people we interviewed as the beginnings of an unprovoked attack.

One of the neighbours said: "The coalition forces put two grenades inside the house.

"They are lying [if they say there was reason to attack] because this family didn't shoot at all. There was nothing - no fire - coming out of the house.

"But the coalition just threw grenades in and raided the place. They did this for nothing. There were 16 dead. There were women, a baby and a little kid.

"There were no terrorists. The coalition calls us Iraqis insurgents, terrorists, but it is the coalition who are the terrorists, not us."

'Islamic soil'

The street's residents said a total of 16 civilians had been killed. The Iraqi police count was eight killed, seven injured. Photos taken by the Iraqi police at the scene show two small children among the bodies.

Another man arrived to make an angry speech. He said he was a neighbour and had also seen the whole thing.

"We could hear the women and children screaming but the coalition just kept shooting," he said.

His face was wrapped in a chequered kefeyah headscarf and he was wearing sunglasses to obscure his identity.

Pointing at the rubble and wagging his finger, he said the coalition's actions were more brutal than those of Israel against the Palestinians.

"This is Islamic soil, the Prophet's ground. I swear to God that we won't rest until we are liberated, until every last dog and pig of the coalition forces leaves this country."

Sniper targets

People nodded. The raid had caused a lot of anger throughout the area.

For days afterwards, American troops out on patrol were the target of sniper fire. One soldier was shot through the arm.

His commander told me: "We were getting shot at after that because of that. Aggressiveness meets aggressiveness, as I tell my soldiers.

"The attack, where we went in and basically levelled two houses, caused a lot of people out there to be pretty mad at us. If we were in their shoes, we would do the same thing."

The officer, who is familiar with all the details of the SAS assault, went on: "With hindsight, yeah, we could have waited five or 10 minutes [and] maybe we could have got the women and children out.

"In hindsight, we could have done things differently, but you always would have. Hindsight is easy. They [the British special forces] did everything right. They did everything that they should have."

Civilian support

This officer added that the coalition forces acted with far more restraint than the Iraqi police and army: "I tell you the Iraqi military would have taken out that whole place. They would have killed everybody.

"They would have levelled the house with everyone inside. They wouldn't have taken any more casualities."

The coalition is fighting an enemy which, like all guerrilla armies, moves among the civilian population.

The coalition needs the support of that population if it is to win but actions like the assault on the house inevitably forfeit that support when civilians are killed.

Those deaths may be the fault of the insurgents but they are laid at the coalition's door. The SAS killed two "bombmakers". They may have created many more.

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