Every night in Iraq, American Special Operations forces carry out as many as a dozen raids aimed at terrorist leaders allied with Al Qaeda, other insurgent fighters and militia targets. Their after-action reports are the first thing that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American commander in Baghdad, reads the next day. The missions also are closely watched by senior policy makers in Washington, who differ on whether the small number of elite units should focus on capturing and killing leaders of the group that calls itself Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and foreign fighters in Iraq, or whether the greater threat comes from the Sunni- and Shiite-based insurgency. A vast majority — between 80 percent and 90 percent — are aimed at Qaeda-allied targets, while the rest attack other extremist elements, say senior military officers in Baghdad and Pentagon officials.
The mix of targets on any night depends on the intelligence that has been gathered and on an assessment of "can we go after the specific threat or target with the precision required to have a high probability of capture," the officer said. The Special Operations teams are deployed throughout the country so they can respond faster to emerging intelligence on potential targets.
Larger-unit missions primarily engage in what are called clearing operations and aim to uncover arms caches, go after bomb-making cells, rescue civilian hostages held by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia or other insurgents and capture or kill insurgent and militia leaders.