Commandos from U.S. and British elite forces were sent into Iraq on secret missions to find bomb targets, kidnap or kill military officers and steal vital equipment, a British Sunday newspaper said.

Some 2,000 U.S. commandos and up to 200 British special forces took part in the operations to probe and attack Iraq's fighting machine, playing a key role in the allied victory, the Sunday Times said in a report quoting U.S. defense sources.Soldiers from the British army's Special Air Service were said to have worked undercover in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and other cities, disguised as local traders. At the start of the war, allied commandos captured an air base near Baghdad to stop President Saddam Hussein from fleeing the country, the report said.

"What those chaps did was truly amazing," one PentaPlease see COMMANDOS on A2

gon source was quoted as saying. "Kidnappings, killings, rescues, calling in aircraft, driving around Baghdad like it was their back yard. You name it they did it," he said.

"There was even one report that we captured a MiG-23 fighter from inside Iraq and flew it to Saudi Arabia."

Commandos are known to have played a part in the gulf war, but details of their work are kept secret. Seven British prisoners of war released by Iraq were understood to be members of the SAS caught behind enemy lines.

Some commandos were still in Iraq assessing the uprising against Saddam, the Pentagon source said.

At the start of the war, Arabic-speaking SAS soldiers infiltrated Baghdad and other main cities where they sought out military targets and planted laser targeting devices to guide allied bombers.

Others penetrated Iraq in low-flying helicopters or were dropped behind Iraqi lines with special parachutes that could be "flown" up to 50 miles to a designated site, the report said.

SAS soldiers roamed the desert on motorcyles and "dune buggies" to hunt down Iraqi mobile Scud launchers, used to fire missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Some went on kidnap or assassination missions against senior Iraqi officers that were designed to cripple the country's military command structure. Captured Iraqi officers were taken to Saudi Arabia for interrogation.

The special forces were used to rescue downed pilots before they could be caught by Iraqi forces, the report said.

They managed to track some captured airmen to a building in the city of Basra, but the idea of a rescue mission was rejected as too risky, the Sunday Times said.

The SAS was formed in World War II to strike deep behind German lines. The British commander in the Persian Gulf, Lt. Gen. Sir Peter de la Billiere, is a special forces veteran.