The Boston Globe March 25, 2003
Fedayeen Saddam; Us Forces Brace For More Tricks By Iraqi Militia
By Robert Schlesinger, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON - Stung by the surrender ploys that left nine Marines dead and five other soldiers captured, US military commanders yesterday were bracing for more trick attacks - including soldiers posing as journalists - from the fanatical paramilitary militia that are the most diehard supporters of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
US officials said yesterday that the militia, called Fedayeen Saddam, has been dispatched to attack coalition forces from the rear and to prevent regular Iraqi units from throwing down their weapons and surrendering, but the officials insisted that the United States would not shift tactics in dealing with soldiers who appear to be surrendering or civilians.
The Fedayeen Saddam, which roughly translates to "men who sacrifice themselves for Saddam," have emerged in recent years as among the most sinister forces in a repressive regime, operating independent of the military and developing a reputation for brutality notable even among the Iraqi internal security services.
"They hit below the belt," said Walid Phares, a professor of Middle East studies at Florida Atlantic University and an analyst for MSNBC. "They're fluid, they're everywhere, they're ninjas."
They are expected to fight to the last man. And with their unconventional, terrorist style, they illustrate the tactical dangers of trying to eliminate Hussein's hard-core followers while minimizing other deaths, especially as US forces approach Baghdad.
"If they sent out hundreds of these people to launch these skirmishes . . . then there's surely thousands of them preparing the defense of Baghdad," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank. "That was one of the root problems the Americans had in Vietnam . . . because we had trouble telling the difference between the good Vietnamese and the bad Vietcong."
Estimates of Fedayeen Saddam's strength vary, with US government officials putting it at between 25,000 and 60,000 strong. Some of those have been dispersed in the south, in part to harass US military forces and in part to instill fear among the Iraqi fighters.
"We believe from prisoner-of-war debriefings that the Fedayeen may be preventing a number of regular soldiers from surrendering, giving the soldiers a choice of either fighting or being shot in the back," Major General Stanley McChrystal told reporters.
Hussein founded the Fedayeen in 1994, putting them under the control of his eldest son, Uday. The group was originally little more than a group of thugs in uniform, poorly equipped and trained, US officials said. But in recent years, the Fedayeen have gained new stature in the web of organizations that make up Iraq's internal security apparatus. They train at Iraq's alleged terrorist training facility at Salman Pak, Iraqi defector Sabah Khodada told the "Frontline" TV news program in October 2001. And they have become one of the most feared groups in the country, reporting directly to Saddam or Uday Hussein, independent of the military and political structures.
"Certainly this is a regime known for its brutality, but [the Fedayeen] would be less restrained than the regular armed forces in terms of quelling civil unrest," one US official said.
The Fedayeen allegedly beheaded women in 2000 and 2001, ostensibly for being prostitutes. "They did the Taliban thing a little bit by imposing some sort of regime of fear based on morality," Phares said.
The Fedayeen are recruited for their loyalty. They are rewarded with money and privileges, allowing them to live in luxury unknown to average Iraqis.
"These guys are going to fight to the death more than likely because they aren't going to enjoy the same lifestyle that they enjoy now," a defense official said. "In fact, chances are they'll probably be killed by the populace they've abused for the last eight, nine years."
The Fedayeen would stand little chance in straight-up battles against US forces, but appear bent on guerilla tactics such as fake surrenders and ambushes, military specialists said. Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said, "We've had some information that the Iraqi military might equip vehicles and Iraqi soldiers to look like news media."
Such strikes are likely to have only a marginal strategic effect, but surrender ploys and militiamen dressed as civilians could complicate US hopes of minimizing Iraqi deaths. Nevertheless, US officials insisted they would not change their strategy.
"It's important that we make it easy and safe for Iraqi soldiers to surrender," McChrystal said. "They must feel that they can surrender without fear, and then be treated well, which is exactly what I'm sure we'll continue to do."
Robert Schlesinger can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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