One former officer described how in April of 2002, nearly a year before the invasion, the CIA sent a special unit of eight men to "set up shop" in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. The team had no support from the Pentagon and was told that if it got into trouble, team members would have to get out on their own. At the start the team had fixed communications "windows" when it made contact with Washington, but otherwise operated with little input from CIA headquarters. "[They] had an enormous amount of autonomy," this officer said.
One of the team's chief goals was to develop a network of intelligence sources that could support the invasion and, afterwards, the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. The team started its efforts with the Kurds. "The key thing was credibility," said this person. "We had to get them . . . fully committed by convincing them that this time we were serious, [that] we would finish it and get rid of Saddam."
The CIA was ultimately able to recruit assets in many parts of Iraq, in part because it won support from tribal leaders. "It was extremely well funded," said the second person involved in the effort. "They passed out . . . a lot of money to the sheikhs." Agency operators also distributed satellite phones and other communications equipment to support intelligence gathering, and used laser technology to "paint" buildings and other infrastructure so they could be easily targeted when the war began.
Given that the story's sources are current and former CIA officials, it's no surprise that they remain anonymous, but not totally reassuring. It is indeed possible that those agents were part of an effort to put pressure on Saddam Hussein rather than "battleground preparation" specialists getting ready for the inevitable war. It will be interesting to see if any other news outlets pursue the story.
Thanks to the ever-valuable War and Piece by Laura Rozen for the tip.
UPDATE: A March 2002 story about even-earlier on-the-ground preparations appeared in the now-defunct YellowTimes.org.
As Dick Cheney tours the Middle East in search of support for an American offensive against the Iraqi regime, Yellowtimes.org has learned through multiple independent sources that the Pentagon has already begun planning and building new bases in the region.
This military logistic and support activity orchestrated by the Bush administration falls in line with the recent comments of the Iraqi National Congress, the main opposition group of Saddam Hussein, which stated on National Public Radio (NPR) that for the first time, the United States has told them that it wants a regime change in Iraq.