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ARLINGTON, Va. — The special operations forces in Iraq may work in the shadows, but they are making a larger contribution to the war than commandos in any other conventional military operation in U.S. history, according to senior military officials.

Speaking to reporters during a Pentagon briefing Friday, Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director for Operations on the Joint Staff, said that special operations missions in Iraq “are more extensive in this campaign than any I have seen.”

McChrystal, who served with a special operations unit during the Gulf War, said that special operators are working with the anti-Saddam Kurdish forces in northern Iraq; securing Iraq’s western desert and destroying Scud missile launchers that could target Israel; and performing covert missions in and around Baghdad.

The war involves “the most effective use of special forces in recent history,” he said.

Special operators include Army Special Forces, special operations aviation, Rangers, civil affairs, and psychological operations forces; Air Force special operations aviators and special tactics teams; and Navy Sea, Air and Land (SEAL) and Special Boat Units.

The U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in Tampa, Fla., oversees all of them, about 47,000 in all.

McChrystal declined to identify how many of those special operators are involved in Iraq.

“It’s a lot,” McChrystal said.

But he implied that “a lot” encompasses a special operations effort that dwarfs anything the U.S. military has ever tried before.

“As a percentage” of overall combat forces, McChrystal said, there are more special operations forces in Iraq than have participated in any war “with a conventional element” that the United States has undertaken.

Before Iraq, military officials had described the U.S. overthrow of Afghanistan’s Taliban government as the first modern war that was anchored principally by special operations forces.

Special ops forces performed so well during the Afghanistan campaign that in January, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that for the first time, JSOC would have the option of leading global missions, instead of following directions from other regional commanders.

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