TIMES ONLINE March 17, 2003
AS HUNDREDS of thousands of men and machines mass in Kuwait, a highly secretive military build-up is also under way on President Saddam Hussein’s western flank.
Special forces from the United States and Britain have begun to conduct long-range reconnaissance missions from their bases along the 113-mile border between Iraq and Jordan, military sources have told The Times. Remarkably, Israeli forces are also said to be involved.
Jordan is highly sensitive about military activity in a swath of land 50 miles deep along its border with Iraq, where residents talk of the rumble of transport aircraft landing at remote airstrips.
Jordan acknowledges that American troops are there, but insists they are to defend its own territory and airspace.
One Western military expert said yesterday: “It is a very discreet operation, but the special forces are certainly there. You may not see any tanks dashing across the border from Jordan when the war begins, but there will be significant special forces activity.
“These forces are already providing targeting information on Iraqi assets – so called Scud-hunting – and as they push east towards Baghdad, you can expect to see a very fluid front line.”
The secrecy has two objectives: to keep Iraq guessing and to avoid provoking a Jordanian population bitterly opposed to the coming war.
On Saturday, about 5,000 people chanted “no to foreign troops in Jordan” as they demonstrated in Amman.
The US Air Force is already targeting Iraqi positions in the western desert and on Friday a B1B bomber was used for the first time to attack an installation just across the border.
At least 5,000 US troops are already in Jordan, according to an official source in Amman. One Western diplomat in the capital said, however, that the true figure was nearer 7,000. Thousands more are expected to arrive soon, and although some will be training Jordanian Armed Forces and manning the three Patriot anti-missile batteries defending Amman and the northern city of Irbid, about half are thought to be special forces troops.
Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s Foreign Minister, conceded last week that the number of foreign troops may have risen to 2,000 or 3,000.
“We are not denying that there are special forces troops in Jordan, we are not denying that there are US troops in Jordan . . . but I want to make it absolutely clear that their presence is for purely defensive purposes,” he said.
“There are no troops for any offensive operations, and there are no troops in the tens of thousands, as has been reported in the press.
“We have made it clear that we are not participating in this war.”
Scattered among the Americans are an estimated 100 British special forces troops, some of whom are thought to be from the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Service (SBS), the Marines’ equivalent of the SAS.
Intriguingly, members of Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s commando force, are also said by Western military experts to have carried out covert reconnaissance operations inside the Western Iraqi desert. They are thought to be pre-empting a repeat of the first Gulf War when Saddam fired 39 Scuds at Israel.
In return for its political gamble, Washington has promised Jordan an economic aid package worth hundreds of millions of dollars or more, according to one official source in Amman.
King Abdullah has said that he is confident that Jordanians will benefit “economically, politically and strategically” from the pragmatic position that he is taking.
But he added: “We wish we had a more understanding public.”