Operation Viking Hammer (2003)

Operation Viking Hammer was a unconventional warfare operation that involved US Army Special Forces during the Iraq War. The operation took place in the northern part of the country, commonly known as Iraq Kurdistan. The goal of the operation was to eliminate the Ansar al-Islam terrorist as they had occupied parts of Kurdistan.

Background

Ansar al-Islam was an Islamist terrorist organization which made its first appearance in Iraqi Kurdistan in December 2001. The group was made up of a combination of Kurdish recruits and Arab veterans of the war in Afghanistan. The group also had non-Kurdish/Arabic members. From 2001 to 2003, they fought against Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, carving out an enclave around the town of Halabja which they placed under their control. The CIA also suspected Ansar al-Islam of manufacturing chemical weapons and the poison Ricin in a factory in the town of Sargat.

Additionally, at least two other militant Kurdish Islamic groups were operating in the region, and these generally aligned themselves with Ansar al-Islam.

After Turkey had denied the U.S. 4th Infantry Division passage through their borders, the burden of carrying out the northern front of the war in Iraq fell on an ad hoc coalition of Americans to include Special Forces soldiers from 10th SFG and airborne units that parachuted into northern Iraq, and Kurdish Peshmerga forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdish Democratic Party. Before beginning the attack south, the coalition forces first needed to destroy Ansar al-Islam’s enclave in order to secure the Kurdish rear areas and free Kurdish forces to take part in the advance southwards.

The Operation

Ansar al-Islam fighters held a series of mountaintop positions which offered their men a commanding view of the surrounding areas, but also left them vulnerable to air strikes. Cruise missile strikes against Ansar al-Islam positions were launched on March 21. The Americans originally planned to launch a ground attack immediately following the air strikes, but most American forces were not in place. Once more American troops arrived, the date of the attack was set for March 28. The plan called for four lines of advance for the Kurdish forces, with each force accompanied by U.S. Special Forces. On the eve of the battle, the Islamic Group of Kurdistan, which had been allied with Ansar al-Islam, surrendered after having suffered 100 men killed in the March 21 strikes.

The attack from the south on the morning of the 28th was met with heavy fire from the Ansar defenders. Airstrikes were called in and the defenders routed. The Kurds and US advisors pursued them and captured the town of Gulp hours ahead of schedule. The majority of the Ansar fighters retreated to the town of Sargat. Advancing on Sargat, the Kurds and Americans were pinned down for three hours by mortar and machine gun fire. Unable to call in airstrikes or contact friendly forces due to the deep valley blocking radio signals, the Special Forces soldiers used a Barrett M82 .50 caliber sniper rifle to take out Ansar al-Islam machine gun crews while the Kurds brought up artillery. The combination of artillery support and accurate long-range sniper fire drove the Ansar al-Islam forces from the town. Pursuing Ansar fighters into the hills, American and Kurdish forces were again pinned down by machine gun fire and had to call in more air strikes before darkness put an end to the day’s fighting.

The next day, the Americans and Kurds pursued the Ansar al-Islam forces further into the mountains, towards the Iranian border. Many fighters attempted to flee across the border, only to be arrested by the Iranians. Many were sent back across the border and were later captured by Kurdish forces. However, Kurdish sources allege that many Ansar al-Islam fighters were in fact harbored by Iran.

Aftermath

Operation Viking Hammer had eliminated Ansar al-Islam’s presence in northern Iraq, and allowed Kurdish units to join the fight against Iraqi troops in northern Iraq.

American intelligence personnel inspected the suspected chemical weapons site in Sargat and discovered traces of Ricin in the ruins, as well as potassium chloride. They also discovered chemical weapons suits, atropine nerve gas antidotes, and manuals on manufacturing chemical weapons, lending credence to the idea that the site was related to the manufacture of chemical weapons and poisons.

According to the 2004 US New and World Report article, “A firefight in the mountains:”

“Viking Hammer would go down in the annals of Special Forces history—a battle fought on foot, under sustained fire from an enemy lodged in the mountains, and with minimal artillery and air support.”

Three U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers were awarded the Silver Star for their actions around Sargat.

Ansar al-Islam would later re-emerge as a group involved in the Iraqi insurgency, but significantly depleted in strength due to this battle.

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