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People's Army / Popular Army / People's Militia
(Al Jaysh ash Shaabi)

Iraq fielded a "people's" army. The Iraqi Popular Army (Jaysh al-Sha'abi) consisted of a popular militia composed of civilian volunteers to protect the Ba'ath regime against internal opposition and to serve as a power base (and counter-balance) to the regular army.

The Popular Army was organized on an area basis with a total of 19 divisions [also termed Brigades]. Popular Army GHQ in Baghdad controled area HQs located in Baghdad and each of Iraq's 18 administrative provinces (muhafazat, singular -- muhafazah) [in practice, these units did not effectively exist in the three provinces controlled by Kurdish forces]. Each area HQ was commanded by a district commander. Each district controled a number of "sectors" headed by sector commanders. Each sector controled up to 10 "bases," led by platoon commanders.

There were four types of bases: Infantry or combat bases with infantrymen; Command bases with commanders; Close support bases with light mortars and MGs; and Antiaircraft bases, with antiaircraft (AA) guns and MGs. Each base contained up to 10 x squads of from 10 to 15 men. Personnel were assigned to squads based on their residences, to ensure swift mobilization.

Training in the Popular Army was limited to several weeks prior to mobilization, although some instructors came from the regular army to help improve the quality of training. Training was conducted in: Physical training; Use of arms (mainly small arms); Obstacle crossing (including wire and mine obstacles); Assaults on enemy positions; Searches in mountainous terrain; and Possible air assault training for Popular Army commandos.

The Popular Army was founded in 1970 as a party-controlled militia which would provide Ba'ath cadre with basic military training and act as a counterweight to the regular armed forces.

Beginning in 1974, Taha Yasin Ramadan, a close associate of President Saddam Hussein, commanded the People's Army, which was responsible for internal security. The command of such a large military establishment gave Ramadan so much power, however, that some foreign observers speculated that the primary function of his second in command was to keep him from using the People's Army as a personal power base.

The People's Army grew rapidly, and by 1977 it was estimated to have 50,000 active members. Subsequently, a phenomenal growth, giving the militia extensive internal security functions, occurred. Universal conscription drew in increasing numbers of Iraqis as the expanding defence budget allowed for a spectacular growth in the size of the armed forces. In addition, the Popular Army and the youth organisation brought ever larger numbers into the paramilitary formations established by the regime.

Whereas its original purpose was to give the Baath Party an active role in every town and village, the People's Army in 1981 began its most ambitious task to date, the support of the regular armed forces. The official functions of the People's Army were to act as backup to the regular armed forces in times of war and to safeguard revolutionary achievements, to promote mass consciousness, to consolidate national unity, and to bolster the relationship between the people and the army in times of peace.

The People's Army dispatched units to Iraqi Kurdistan before 1980 and to Lebanon to fight with Palestinian guerrillas during the 1975-76 Civil War. Foreign observers concluded, however, that the primary function of the People's Army was political in nature; first, to enlist popular support for the Baath Party, and second, to act as a counterweight against any coup attempts by the regular armed forces.

People's Army members were recruited from among both women and men (who had completed their regular army service) eighteen years of age and older. It was unclear whether or not Baath Party membership was a prerequisite -- especially after 1981, when the numerical strength of the People's Army ballooned -- but, clearly, party indoctrination was at least as important as military training. Members usually underwent a two-month annual training period, and they were paid from party funds. Although the extent of their training was unknown in early 1988, all recruits were instructed in the use of a rifle. Graduates were responsible for guarding government buildings and installations, and they were concentrated around sensitive centers in major towns. Militia members possessed some sophisticated arms, and it was possible that disgruntled officers contemplating a challenge to Saddam Hussein could rally the support of a force of such militiamen.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s new units were created and a continued arms build up took place. With less than a year of Saddam's seizure of absolute power in 1979, the Popular Army more than doubled, from 100,00 to 250,000 men. This system of separation between the Popular (elite) Army and the regular army (intended to deny the latter a monopoly of the State's means of violence) broke down during the Iraq-Iran war.

Despite its nominal strength of 250,000 the Popular Army was largely ineffective as a combat force in the Iran-Iraq war; its most important role was to guard buildings in the cities during the absence of the regular army. The Popular Army duties of persons living in or on the periphery of the Marshes was confined to the maintenance of security in those areas, particularly in the governorates of Basra, Misan and Dhi Qar.

Early in 1986 Saddam took the Iranian town of Mehran, and said he would trade it for Al Faw. Instead of acquiescing, Iranian forces recaptured Mehran and drove off the Iraqis, humiliating Saddam and raising doubts about his ability to prosecute the war. A few days after the debacle at Mehran, the leaders of the Baath Party held an "Extraordinary Congress" in Baghdad and decided on a mobilization. The party enlisted men as old as 42 for the Popular Army militia. The regime initiated a total call-up of available manpower in 1986. The response was good. No draft riots occurred; young men -- even college students -- reported without incident. The fact that the public answered the call indicated that Iraqis supported their government.

By 1987 Iraq's total armed forced numbered over a million, with an additional 650,000 in the People's Army. Iraq tended to put excessively large forces into battle, which made for some uneven quality. For example, the regime persisted in using Ba'thist militiamen - the so-called Popular Army -- long after it was shown that they were not reliable.

Iraq's new "volunteer army" arose early in 1998. A letter Saddam had sent the Bath party leadership on 16 January 1998 was read on Iraqi TV on 17 January, after his speech that day, marking the anniversary of the start of the Gulf war, in which he proclaimed that Iraq "is irrevocably determined to wage the greater jihad for the lifting of the blockade." A campaign to enlist the population in "voluntary" paramilitary training followed. A joint committee of Baath Party officials and officers of the security services was formed to make people volunteer for the militia known as the Popular Army. All students and teachers at secondary schools, colleges and universities were pressured to "volunteer". Teachers were also being forced to join. Military training for these "volunteers" took place daily for 3-4 hours. The regime expected at least one volunteer from every household and threatened the ration card of those not complying.

While the Popular Army, Al Jaysh ash-Shaabi, has been demobilized except for emergency cases, active training continues, and Saddam's Fedayeen remains an institution serving the leader himself.

The civilian Ba'athist Party-based popular militias (believed 1 million-strong before the Gulf War) have reportedly been disbanded, as have the 100,000-strong "pro-regime" Kurdish militias. Following the renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence in late 2000, Iraq created the Al Quds (Jerusalem) Volunteer Army in early 2001 to ostensibly liberate Palestine and Jerusalem and defeat the Zionists (Israelis). Iraq reported that this force is made up of 7 million Iraqis divided into 21 divisions. However, it is more likely that this force was propaganda designed to show Iraqi support for the Palestinian cause, has fewer personnel, and is an ineffective fighting force.

Saddam Cubs

More than 40% of the population of Iraq is under the age of twenty-five, and the youth of the country had been shaped to Ba'thist ideology. They were instilled with the principles of Saddam Hussein himself to produce the new man, fulfilling a vision aspired to by every fascist regime. Young Iraqis were indoctrinated at an early age through Ba'th teaching, and through organisations which were part of the regime such as youth groups. They learned to adulate Saddam Hussein as a person. Between the age of five and seven primary school children were enrolled in "Saddam's Cubs" (Ashbal Saddam) and remained members until the age of fifteen or seventeen when they became Saddam's Fidayi. School boys aged between 12-17 years could attend a month long military training camp for 3 weeks during the summer holidays. Dubbed the "lion cubs of Saddam" the school boys allegedly received training in small arms at the camp. Saddam's Cubs prepare young volunteers for Saddam's Fedayeen.

Saddam Hussein had held 3-week training courses in weapons use, hand-to-hand fighting, rappelling from helicopters, and infantry tactics for children between 10 and 15 years of age. Camps for these "Saddam Cubs" operated throughout the country. Senior military officers who supervised the courses noted that the children held up under the "physical and psychological strain" of training that lasted for as long as 14 hours each day. Sources in the opposition reported that the army found it difficult to recruit enough children to fill all of the vacancies in the program. Families reportedly were threatened with the loss of their food ration cards if they refused to enroll their children in the course. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq reported in October 1999 that authorities were denying food ration cards to families that failed to send their young sons to Saddam Cubs compulsory weapons-training camps. Similarly, authorities reportedly withheld school examination results to students unless they registered in the Fedayeen Saddam organization.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:49:32 ZULU