19 September, 2005. Basra, Iraq. The British soldiers couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Before them, on a TV screen, sat two of their own, faces bloody from beatings, being paraded on Iraqi TV. The announcer read in Arabic that they were being charged with the murder of an Iraqi policeman; they were held in Basra, the very city where they were stationed; and they would soon go on trial. The realization of what was happening caused blood pressures to rise among more than a few of the men, who felt like someone had slapped them in the face. Yet, unknown to them, at another location nearby, emotions were much worse. The beaten men were not just from the British Army, they were from the elite Special Air Service, or SAS.
As the lieutenant colonel in charge of the unit to which they belonged watched the screen repeat the showing several times over the coming hour, a sickening feeling grew within him. Corrupt policemen who sympathized with the insurgency—specifically the Mahdi Army, also known as Jaysh al-Mahdi—had kidnapped these men. He knew that, given past brutalities of the many factions fighting against the British, the likelihood of those operators surviving more than a few days was narrow at best.
They needed to be rescued. Now.
Realizing his detachment was too small, he notified senior officers and another SAS unit 300 miles to the north to request reinforcements. He didn’t need to ask twice. The men donned their gear, prepared their H&K submachine guns and C8 carbines, and headed toward a waiting C-130.
The lieutenant colonel began making more phone calls to determine the station at which the men were held. As he contemplated a plan, a senior officer piped through the phone. Expecting the order to go ahead, what followed forever changed him.
“Permission not granted. There are more important things than the lives of soldiers.” It was not a general in Iraq, but the senior general at permanent joint headquarters Northwood, England, which controlled British military operations in Iraq. The lieutenant colonel, incredulous at the command, informed his superior of the danger of leaving the two men in captivity, but to no avail. The general repeatedly overruled his plea.
The conversation ended, and, at that moment, the SAS commander realized that someone in a position of power within the highest levels of the British Army actually didn’t care about the lives of British soldiers. He also knew it wasn’t just the general; it had to be the Ministry of Defense that had passed down the orders through Northwood. Reluctantly, he picked up the receiver and phoned the commanding officer and his men packed into the C-130, its engines running, ready to move into takeoff position. The C.O. could not believe what the lieutenant colonel related to him. After the call, the C.O. turned to his men and told them what happened. They were furious. Political correctness had struck again.
The lieutenant colonel seethed with rage. He wanted to quit right there. He knew many others would resign as well once they heard what happened. His two people were going be left to the wolves and there wasn’t a damn thing he or anyone else could do about it.
Then he made the decision. He reached over, picked up the phone, and called the SAS detachment in the C-130. “We’re doing it anyway,” he said. Forget about political correctness.
The C-130 moved for takeoff.
Hell was going to rain down him, the lieutenant colonel reckoned. Essentially, his career in the army was over. A court-martial awaited him, as well as anyone else who defied orders. Strangely, those things didn’t concern him. He was too well trained to let that happen. No, what he was more concerned about was coming up with a plan to rescue his men. He rose and walked back out to rejoin the others. There it was again: the two captured British SAS operators, sitting there in T-shirts and slacks, looking despondent, someone berating them in Arabic. The lieutenant colonel knew they had to be wondering, “Does anyone know where we are? Will they come?”
Damn right, they would. Problem was, the lieutenant colonel feared, would they be moved before a rescue happened.
First, though, others were determined to try.
Also seeing the two SAS captives were local officials and regular British Army officers. They located the police station in a section called Jamiat, which lay within a walled compound of prefabricated buildings, and sent a small group of officers, along with two Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles, to try to win the captives’ release and resolve the situation peacefully. Coming with them in trucks were about 100 soldiers who were to cordon off the building.
Once the men reached the station, they were aided by a female Muslim lawyer who pleaded on legal grounds for their release. Every effort to gain permission to get through the gates was ignored and a mob grew around them, forcing them to leave. The soldiers departed as well. But the Warriors were not so lucky. The mob shouted and hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at the two vehicles. One became smothered in flames and had to be abandoned by its crew. One of the men was beaten before being rescued and placed on the remaining Warrior, which sped off. The crowds shouted the Takbīr, rejoicing in the retreat. The area around the police station seemed like a time bomb waiting to go off.
During the retreat, the C-130 arrived in Basra and disgorged its cargo. The lieutenant colonel informed the reinforcements of the failed rescue attempt. Undaunted and determined not to let it end the same way again, the SAS unit organized itself into ten Warriors, along with helicopters to provide overwatch. With the sun setting, the formidable force departed their base and drove down the busy streets toward the station, eyes watching for any sign of an ambush.
Remarkably, the drive itself was uneventful. Even when they turned the corner to head for the station, the mob was absent. Then, the Warriors gunned their engines and slammed through the walls. They rolled right through the buildings except for the station itself. Men rushed out of the Warriors and swarmed the compound, some flooding into the station, others moving to kill or secure the policemen and any militants hanging around.
The ear-splitting snap of flash-bang grenades sounded in the air. Gunshots rang out as foolish militants who raised their guns quickly fell with dozens of rounds in their bodies. Inside the station, the SAS confronted policemen, who raised their hands in fear as they were disarmed, handcuffed, and made to lie face-down on the floor. Then the cell search began, where they found that their worst fear—their comrades being moved—had come true.
To be continued.
This article was originally written by Mike Perry.