WASHINGTON – A new covert military team has been set up by top U.S. military commanders in the Middle East to hunt down Usama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and other wanted fugitives in the war on terror, Fox News confirmed Friday.
The classified team, which was first reported in The New York Times on Friday, is called "Task Force 121," and is a combination of Task Force 5 from Afghanistan and Task Force 20 in Iraq under one command. The goal is to streamline how U.S. forces are using information about "high-value targets" and to launch attacks against them.
Operations to root out Al Qaeda's top leaders in Afghanistan and the deposed Iraqi dictator will continue "24-7," one senior official told Fox News, but the combination of assets under one command umbrella provides a flexibility that was not available to commanders before. Operations could continue simultaneously in both countries with the force split, or a variety of task force assets may be allocated to Iraq or Afghanistan as intelligence points up an immediate need.
"This allows us to take advantage of events as they happen," another senior official told Fox News on Friday. "This structure eliminates a number of elements from the chain of command and coordination."
Task Force 121 will have fewer restrictions than those imposed on the other task forces and will have the benefit of using a combination of special operations and conventional ground forces and better intelligence from the CIA about "high-value targets." The team also will not be bound to the conventional borders the U.S. military is operating within in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials remain confident that Saddam is alive and is personally directing, or at least inspiring, the resistance being felt by coalition forces.
"We have not got Saddam Hussein yet. We will get him," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on "Fox News Sunday." "And I suspect he's still in the country. And I suspect he's having a great deal of difficulty operating. And we'll eventually find him."
Asked by Fox News if he thought Saddam and bin Laden will actually be caught, Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., a member of the House Homeland Security team, said: "Yes they are, the question is when, not if ... I'm all for this task force and I think it's very important to get this job done."
Gen. John P. Abizaid, who commands all American forces in the strategic crescent from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, decided over the summer to disband Force 5 and Task Force 20, officials told the Times.
Task Force 121 was create for several reasons, officials said, including the fact that the Bush administration wants to stress that the war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has not been neglected during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and that capturing bin Laden — dead or alive — is still of paramount importance.
Administration officials also are reportedly becoming increasingly frustrated that Saddam has not yet been nabbed. They believe that once he's out of the picture, most of the attacks being launched on a daily basis — against the coalition and the Iraqis helping them in reconstruction efforts — will stop.
While it is unclear whether President Bush, or the newly-formed Iraq Stabilization Group at the National Security Council, were directly involved in the decision to create Task Force 121, the Times reported, senior administration members have said in the last two months that capturing or killing Saddam would change the dynamic of the American occupation.
Fox News' Bret Baier, Greg Kelly, and Ian McCaleb contributed to this report.