The shadows in this deepening night moved with purpose, beaten grass forming into footprints as they halted, then moved as one until fanning out into a wide swath, almost abreast to halt again just below the crest of the mountain top. They maneuvered amidst jagged rocks, while eyes, rimmed with a dull green glow peered through the night observation devices at the squat stone hovels that dotted a steep ridge across the blackened plain.

A tinge of freezing wind rolled among the group as their stare veered left to catch a slender cigar shaped craft streaking in from the south. They followed it until it dipped its nose, causing them to raise the NOD’s. A shockwave of gray vapor arced skyward from the orange fireball that engulfed the structures on the ridge, hurling light across the plain, flickering upon their faces.

The rumbling though distant, still trembled the earth beneath them as they pulled the NOD’s down. The fires created an image of pulsating shades of green in the devices that grew and waned while scanning for any sign of the structures. Slender wisps of smoke rising into a fist of churning white above where the dwellings once stood, confirmed the sight.

The Tomahawks did their job. Now, the Green Berets realized the other 99 beginning to strike in quick flashes across the expanse of horizon would yield similar results. The date was March 21st, 2003, 2 days into Operation Iraqi Freedom…

Turkey’s refusal to allow the U.S. Army’s 4th infantry division to launch from its borders into Iraq presented a challenge to war planners who knew leaving the northern part of Iraq unattended could pose grave problems for the main body of U.S. forces driving on Baghdad from Kuwait.

At least 13 Iraqi divisions were known to occupy the area, while such a vast region also comprised a terrorist training camp belonging to Ansar Al-Islam, a new organization composed of Arab veterans of Afghanistan and Kurdish recruits.

This organization fought against Kurdish rebels from 2001 to 2003 and established an almost autonomous area around the town of Halabja. Furthermore militant Kurdish groups also aligned themselves with the group, and presented the greatest threat along the Turkish/Iraq border.

With the men and firepower of the 4th infantry division out of the picture, however, planners raced to implement something that might prove as effective, though less visible, and with far fewer personnel. They knew Kurdish rebels numbering up to 65,000 in the region were more than willing to fight alongside coalition forces if given the chance.

Kurdish Peshmerga Fighters in Northern Iraq
Kurdish Peshmerga Fighters in Northern Iraq

They called themselves Peshmerga, “those who face death.” Most had known nothing but oppression and conflict since birth. Now the time came to form them into something resembling an army- at least those who answered the call-and lead them into battle.

Most of the Kurds were tied up fighting Ansar Al-Islam though, and unless it was removed from the scene, the Kurd’s would not fight, leaving rear areas in the north vulnerable, and leaving any hope of striking the Iraqi divisions with a sizable force ran unanswered question. So it fell upon the shoulders of 280 Green Berets, riding in the cargo holds of 6 MC-130 Combat Talons, to give one.

Designated Task Force Viking, their leader, Colonel Charlie Cleveland received the assignment to use small groups of men designated as Operational Detachment Alpha’s (ODA, 12 men) to lead the Kurds against the mountain top positions of Ansar Al-Islam, eradicate them, then join other ODA’s in harassing the Iraqi forces, their keeping elements from moving south toward the main coalition advance. All this he must do along a 217 mile front, with what would eventually amount to a 7,000 man force with little to no air support.

It sounded impossible, but there remained no other option for the north. In all, Cleveland commanded 3 Special Forces battalions (about 50 ODA’s), 2 from the 10th Special Forces Group and 1 from the 3rd to accomplish this.

First, he knew Anser Al-Islam beckoned. With the 280 men of Task Force Viking, along with a few thousand lightly armed Kurds, he prepared to launch an operation destined to become a classic in the annals of special warfare.

General Ken Tovo
General Ken Tovo

Touching down at an airbase in the north after a harrowing low level journey through a night riddled with antiaircraft fire, the men filed off, and boarded vehicles to take them to their chosen rebel units. Soon, many of the ODA’s sported beards and local attire, while others, wore their combat uniforms and retained the clean shaven, squared away look.

“We’re the army of the greatest power in the world. This is how we do things,” Lieutenant Colonel Bob Waltemeyer said.

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Cleveland divided the north into 2 sectors, placing Waltemeyer (10th SFG),in charge of one and Lieutenant Colonel Ken Tovo (10th SFG) ,the other. It was in Tovo’s sector that Ansar Al-Islam operated, and it would be up to the ODA’s, split from 12 men into groups of 4 and 6 to lead groups of 150 up to 1,000 rebels to crush them.

With the forces gathered, a meeting of American and Kurdish commanders occurred in Halabja. A large sand model lay before them with color coded prongs showing where each unit was to advance. This was the genesis of the Operation coined Viking Hammer, with the terrain over their march consisting of a vast plain that unfolded to the base of a mountainous region serving as the terrorists enclave.

In fact, some 160 square miles fell under Ansar Al-Islam’s control and for this; the most powerful weapon in the fight would prove not to be the AK 47, M4 or even the RPG, but the radio.

Each of the teams knew that coordinating such a large but primitive army required frequent communication in order to keep the advances from stalling and avoiding friendly fire. If they could pull it off and keep the tempo of movement steady, they stood a reasonable chance of pushing the terrorists from the mountains and freeing up forces for the bigger fight.

Viking Hammer began on March 28th, with officials at levels up to the White House monitoring reports coming from the teams as they commenced the advance across the plain toward the mountains and a valley called Sarget. Once they came into range, Al-Islam fighters rained a barrage of mortar fire from the snowy peaks into their ranks.

The Americans called in an airstrike to free the pinned down force at the base of the mountains. A pair of F-18’s roared in, plastering several mountain tops with laser guided bombs and making strafing runs. Mortars silenced, the force moved onward, firing as they fought for traction up the inclines.

All along the front, pockets of terrorists engaged more units joining the battle with automatic weapons and RPG’s. In one instant a veteran Special Forces team sergeant nicknamed “Grit” hauled a 70 pound Mark 19 grenade launcher into position and lobbed high explosive rounds at a machine gun on a nearby ridge, destroying its crew.

Team leaders kept up a steady stream of communications as the forces kept up their pace, cresting ridge after ridge slamming into of enemy positions, storming houses, blasting caves, then moving on to the next target.

There were no special tactics involved, as the Kurds were unable to understand them. Instead, it was one frontal assault after another, reminiscent of World War 1 style line abreast dashes across No Man’s Land.

This time though, it worked.

Through the next 2 days the teams veered and vectored their forces with pinpoint precision in close quarters combat, pushing the ever weakening enemy towards the Iranian border. Casualties remained light, while many Al-Islam fighters just abandoned their positions, giving up more territory, leaving hundreds of their dead comrades atop freezing mountains to be buried by a victorious army that existed only on paper a few days earlier.

With Ansar Al-Islam destroyed, Viking Hammer subsided then ended on March 30th. All enemy positions were swept clean and several towns liberated. In 2 of them, Sarget and Briya, forces found manuals and ingredients on how to make chemical weapons, antidotes, gas masks and hazard suits.

Identifications on many of the dead terrorists revealed a melting pot of fighters from all over the Arab world, with troves of documents linking Al-Islam to Al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas.

US Special Forces in Operation Viking Hammer
US Special Forces in Operation Viking Hammer

Casualties among Al-Islam numbered in the hundreds including those killed in the March 21st strikes. U.S. forces suffered no casualties while Kurdish forces suffered 3 killed and 23 wounded, a testament to the effectiveness of battlefield coordination using only the spoken word.

For their actions 3 silver and 6 bronze stars were awarded

With more Kurdish fighters now joining them, Task Force Viking turned its attention to the Iraqi’s. They blew bridges, lay ambushes, and prevented them from racing south. Once units of the the 173rd Airborne descended from the sky, they linked up and secured the largest cities in the north, Kirkuk and Mosul, along with its 2 largest oil fields.

After Baghdad fell, Viking Hammer faded from memory. A growing Iraqi insurgency led to more assignments for ODA’s involved in the operation, spreading them out over the country.

Operation Viking Hammer Iraq War Map

Difficult days lay ahead, but for the green berets of the ordeal, the memory of their success fills them with pride. They wiped out the world’s largest terrorist base with few losses, uncovered traces of the “Weapons of Mass Destruction”, and killed hundreds of veteran terrorists the process, leaving Ken Tovo, now a Major General, to say, perhaps, what they all felt.

“It was my most professionally satisfying mission”