Story by Isaih Vega, 10th SFG(A).
“In the Spring of 2002, as the concept started to take shape, all I could think was, this sounded like an exciting but unrealistic script for a TV show or movie about Special Forces,” said retired Lt. Col. Mark Grdovic. “Our concept was to open a second front against Saddam’s forces that would force him to divide his limited forces to defend the north and ease the pressure on the invading U.S. and collation forces in the south.”
In 2003, the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), along with approximately 55,000 Kurdish Fighters (aka Peshmerga) from the Kurdish Democratic party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), rallied together for what would be known as Task Force Viking. The objective of TF Viking was to disrupt the enemy forces in the Joint Special Operations Area North, specifically the 13 Iraqi Divisions that included: two Republican Guard Divisions and an Armor Division. In addition to the Iraqi forces, an Islamic extremist group, Ansar al-Islam, with ties to Al Qaeda, was also situated along the Iranian border. However, to effectively enable the PUK to threaten the Iraqi positions, it first required Ansar al-Islam to be neutralized as a threat to their rear area.
“As I understood the situation, all we must do is successfully conduct a division-size, daylight, uphill, frontal attack in mountainous terrain, with a partner whom I have not yet met, against a fanatical entrenched enemy with minimal resources. Amidst this task is a facility that the USG is interested in and would like us to conduct a raid and subsequent sensitive site exploitation to determine the extent of the suspected chemical/biological experiments.”Col. (Ret) Mark Grdovic, former 3rd Battalion, 10th SFG(A) Operations Officer
He continued to state, “To be crystal clear, this effort, as complex as it is, is not my actual mission but merely a precursor that must be accomplished to conduct my actual mission (to open a second front against Saddam). This task comes with an unknown expiration date for its value to the U.S. CENTCOM plan based on the undeclared (secret) D-Day for the invasion”.
Map: Map of Northern Iraq March 2003, courtesy of Mark Grdovic. Ansar-al-Islam’s area of operations was in the vicinity of the red blob on the above map along the Iraqi-Iranian border – in the vicinity of Sargat, Iraq (Google Maps).
The operation would require attacking along a 25-mile front uphill in incredibly rugged mountainous terrain connected with the Iranian border. On the 21st of March, the U.S. forces launched 64 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM), minimally impacting the terrorist’s defenses. Several of the TLAMs hit around the Sargat chemical weapons facility.
“I don’t think anyone slept that night. It was quiet; everyone was sitting around, checking equipment, reviewing their portion of the plan, loading vehicles, and trying to rest or eat,” said Grdovic.
Over the next four days, their defenses were softened with intermittent airstrikes.
On the 25th of March, Operation Viking Hammer was underway. The plan called for 5 ODAs, each with an accompanying PUK unit with 1000 peshmerga fighters, attacking along a five separate axis of advance or “prongs,” with 4000 Peshmerga in reserve. The attack ended up as six different routes, each named with a different color. As the PUK forces advanced, they encountered minefields and prepared enemy positions. The ODAs, operating at the front of the PUK columns, called in close air support. In addition, they provided fire support from mortars, crew-served weapons, sniper systems, or small arms. Over the first day of the battle, the PUK columns, with their ODAs, successfully overcame the Ansar al-Islam defenses and pushed the enemy almost to the Iranian border.
During the advance, the Yellow and Green prongs reached and secured the suspected chemical weapons facility in Sargat. The Red and Blue prongs seized a compound near a village called Darga Chakan that was known to house foreign fighters and advisors. One of those foreign fighters was rumored to have been a Jordanian named Zarqawi, who got away and later started the group AQ in Iraq. The ODA accompanying the Black prong was almost overrun during a counterattack when engaged in an intense close-quarter attack with an attempted suicide bomber. The northernmost prong (added the day before and not assigned a color) was also at risk of being overrun until the ODA called in a close airstrike (danger close) to break the enemy’s advance.
The remainder of the day was spent eliminating any final pockets of resistance and consolidating their hold over the terrain. The sensitive site exploitation of the Sargat site yielded positive tests for hydrogen cyanide, the collection of dozens of forged passports, and written documents outlining the process form making VX nerve agent.
The PUK lost approximately 40 fighters during the attack, and at least 2-3 times as many were wounded. The enemy suffered approximately 150-200 hundred killed in action. The following day, 9,000 of the Peshmerga, armed with weapons and ammunition from the battlefield, moved west toward the Green Line like a tidal wave, eager to press the fight to the Iraqi forces and toward Kirkuk. The PUK left 1,000 peshmerga to secure the territory in and around the Halabja and Sargat regions. Over the next two weeks, isolated pockets of Ansar al-Islam fighters would be captured or surrendered.
This story by Sgt. Isaih Vega of the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was first published by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service on March 29, 2023. DVIDS content is in the public domain.
Top Map: The six axis “prong” that advanced across northern Iraq during Operation Viking Hammer. (Courtesy photo by Mark Grdovic)
Operation Viking Hammer, Wikipedia
“Operation VIKING HAMMER”, by Kenneth Finlayson, Veritas, Vol. 1. No. 1, 2005.
“Operation Ugly Baby and 10th Special Forces Group (Iraq 2003)”, SOF News, March 31, 2023.
“Video – History of Task Force Viking (2003)”, SOF News, October 29, 2022.
“Book Review – The CIA War in Kurdistan”, SOF News, January 26, 2021.
“173rd and Operation Northern Delay – March 26, 2003”, SOF News, March 26, 2023.