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Wednesday, March 26

Feared Fedayeen among most loyal to Saddam, might engage in suicide bombings

By Chuck Raasch and John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - Until the war began, few Americans had heard of the Fedayeen Saddam, the paramilitary extremists loyal to Saddam Hussein who have led much of Iraq's defenses in the first week of the war.

But their actions, which include the threat that some would engage in suicide bombings - could have a great effect on the war in coming days. Fedayeen have been cited as much of the backbone of Iraqi resistance in southern Iraq. Coalition forces say Fedayeen have engaged in fake surrender ambushes and have shot civilians or regular army soldiers who wanted to leave Basra or surrender.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld labeled the Fedayeen a "terrorist-type threat'' and lumped them in the group he calls "dead enders'' - those most loyal to Saddam who would fight to the death. On Wednesday, the Pentagon also included in that grouping, paramilitary organizations loyal to the Baath Party, Saddam Hussein's political apparatus, and special Republican Guard units.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said calling these groups paramilitary "sounds too positive in some ways.''

Their tactics, she said, "goes to the brutality of the regime'' and their members "are the worst of the worst.''

Clarke said that going into the war, one of the biggest unknowns was about the Fedayeen - "what is the role they would play, how widespread they would be,'' she said.

Western analysts have estimated the number of Fedayeen anywhere from 18,000 to 60,000. Often appearing in public in black pajamas and scarves covering their faces to intimidate civilians, they often have been used as Saddam's executioners, according to Anthony Cordesman, a military scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Saddam's strategy has been to use the Fedayeen units to attack U.S. supply lines from the rear as they advance toward Baghdad and to suppress Iraqi rebellion at gunpoint. So far, both tactics have been fairly successful.

Coalition forces have met with unanticipated resistance in the southern cities of Umm Qasr, Basra and An Nasiriyah.

These paramilitary troops have been dispersed across much of the south, dressed in civilian clothes.

In a detailed report of the Iraqi military released last month, Cordesman said the Fedayeen were formed by Saddam's son, Uday, in 1995. The name means ``Saddam's men of sacrifice,'' according to Cordesman.

"Most are young men who border on a youth gang, with thugs of age 16 and older, but they are placed under a real lieutenant general,'' Cordesman said. "All are urban and the force is centered in Baghdad. British intelligence reports that Saddam's Martyrs are composed of young militia gangs ... from regions known to be loyal to Saddam.''

Cordesman said the organization reports directly to the presidential palace and is responsible for protecting Saddam and Uday, as well as patrolling the nation's borders and "controlling or facilitating smuggling.''

Within the Fedayeen is a "death squadron, whose masked members perform certain executions, including in victims' homes,'' Cordesman said. ``The Fedayeen operate completely outside the law, above and outside political and legal structures.''

Recent television footage has shown Fedayeen marching with explosive belts, implying they would become suicide bombers.

"By and large, the only surprise that U.S. forces or that U.S. intelligence has really encountered to date has been the role of the Fedayeen Saddam,'' said Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and author of "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.''

He called them "thugs with guns.'' Pollack and Cordesman both said the Fedayeen's biggest threat might be their loyalty to Saddam.

"They are poorly armed; they are poorly trained,'' Pollack said. "In many cases, they are truly the dregs of Iraqi society, but they are Sunnis and they are fiercely loyal to Saddam.''

Their power also stems from fear. Analysts say the Fedayeen units are loathed by most of the Iraqi population, particularly the majority Shiite Muslims, and could face public execution if Saddam falls, which is why they have little reason to surrender.