Fedayeen militia will be a postwar threat, some say
By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, and Bryan Bender, Globe Correspondent, 04/01/2003
WASHINGTON -- US military and intelligence officials said yesterday they fear that the Fedayeen Saddam, the deadly paramilitary group preying on US troops in southern Iraq, will become a long-lasting vigilante force, carrying out attacks on US targets long after Saddam Hussein is gone.
US military planners had originally viewed the Fedayeen as a temporary nuisance and expected that the Hussein loyalists would put down their arms once their leader surrendered. Now, how ever, US intelligence and military officials are viewing the Iraqi irregulars as a long-term threat and one that must increasingly be a focus of attacks by coalition troops.
"There is no middle ground here," said one US military officer in the Persian Gulf, speaking on condition of anonymity, "They have to go."
US forces appear to be targeting the Fedayeen, killing an estimated 100 in Najaf and Samana on Sunday and bombing a gathering of 200 in Basra the day before.
The American forces have heightened security to guard against further Fedayeen suicide attacks, like the one that killed four US soldiers on Saturday. But a conflict yesterday underscored the difficulty of targeting the shadowy militia, who often don civilian garb: US troops killed seven Iraqi women and children at a roadblock near Najaf, possibly mis taking them for Fedayeen when they failed to heed an order to halt.
Growing concern about the Iraqi paramilitaries, who have killed and captured US troops in kamikaze-style raids, has prompted a wave of self-examination in military and intelligence circles, officials say. Military officers are now examining the results of war games that highlighted guerrilla activity held last year, wondering what they could glean from it for the future.
The Pentagon's top official for postwar Iraq, retired US General Jay Garner, was recently briefed about the potential threat posed by the Iraqi Fedayeen to his efforts to stabilize the Middle Eastern nation, US defense officials said.
Iraqi specialists and opposition members also fear that Washington may have underestimated the staying power of Hussein's Ba'ath Party, whose members make up the Fedayeen. They point out that Ba'ath loyalists, ousted from power in 1963, managed to organize in secret and seized power in a coup.
"They kept arms, they had cells, they were organized," said Hamid al-Bayati, the London representative of the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, an Iraqi opposition group. "They have had much experience by now and a much longer time in power."
The Fedayeen Saddam -- in Arabic, "willing to die for Saddam" -- are well-paid, armed groups that protect the regime, drawn largely from unemployed youth from Hussein's tribe in his hometown of Tikrit. Some are recruited directly out of prison, specialists say, and then trained by former Iraqi army officers.
Just how many Fedayeen there are remains unclear. Prewar estimates ranged between 10,000 and 100,000, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks of US Central Command, said yesterday in Qatar. He said the militia will "fight to the death."
Notoriously violent and ruthless, the forces, recruited in 1995 by Hussein's eldest son Uday, have left a trail of brutality. "These are a bunch of thugs who terrorize people," said Amatzia Baram of the University of Haifa, who has studied the Fedayeen.
"They're vicious," US Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday. "They left somebody in the center of Baghdad not too long ago with his tongue pulled out until he bled to death -- cut his tongue out."
A State Department report last week said the Fedayeen beheaded more than 200 women two years ago in a campaign aimed at prostitutes that really targeted dissidents.
If Iraqis grow more disenchanted with the coalition campaign, some analysts fear the Fedayeen could come to be seen as a modern-day Robin Hood, attracting the deeply patriotic in Iraq who may hate Hussein, but oppose a foreign occupation.
"They see the US and British occupation as a foreign occupation," said Lawrence Korb, director of security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. "They will be able to use that as a symbol to gather people around and undermine the occupation, a place for outside groups to funnel support, Al Qaeda and others."
But some US military officials reject the idea that the Fedayeen Saddam could become a popular resistance movement. One senior Central Command official, speaking in Qatar, told yesterday of a military group that forced Iraqi women to march in front of it across a bridge near Karbala, only to shoot one woman in the back and throw her in the river when she tried to escape.
"This is not a people's liberation movement that's going on out there," said the official in Qatar. The woman was rescued by a US soldier, he said.
In southern Iraq, where the majority Shi'ites have long been the target of persecution by Baghdad, specialists predict that the Fedayeen will have less success once the US-led war is over. Cities in the south are small, and the Fedayeen loathed. "People there will want to see them dead," Baram said.
But in big cities such as Baghdad or in Ba'ath Party strongholds like Tikrit, it will be easy for the Fedayeen to mingle with civilians and meet with disenchanted opponents to any new regime.
"There is going to be a continued threat from the fanatics for years to come," said a senior military official in Washington.
Staff reporter Anne Barnard in Qatar contributed to this report.