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IRAQ: What is the Fedayeen Saddam?

Author: Sharon Otterman
March 31, 2003

What is the Fedayeen Saddam?

Experts say the Fedayeen Saddam, or Saddam's Men of Sacrifice, is a 30,000 to 40,000-member Iraqi paramilitary group that appears to be leading guerrilla-style attacks on coalition forces in southern Iraq.

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Why didn't we hear about the Fedayeen before the war started?

Experts on Iraq's military were aware of the Fedayeen, and included the group in reports about Iraqi defenses. However, U.S. war planners apparently underestimated how potent a force they and other paramilitary fighters would be. Top officials in the Bush administration never mentioned the issue to the public in the weeks before the war. The commander of the ground forces in Iraq, Army Lieut. General William Wallace, also appears to have been caught by surprise: "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we wargamed against," he told The New York Times last week.

What did top policymakers know?

The CIA says it distributed a classified report in early February to policymakers warning that the Fedayeen could be expected to employ guerrilla tactics against U.S. rear units. According to a recent article in Time magazine, these Washington analysts now complain that their views were softened as the report moved up the chain of command. Why this happened is far from clear, but some insiders argue that it's because the Bush administration officials were not interested in evidence that contradicted their theories about the welcome Iraqis would give U.S. troops. "I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators," Vice President Dick Cheney said March 16 on NBC's Meet the Press.

How do we know that the paramilitaries attacking U.S. soldiers are Fedayeen and not other groups?

We don't. The little we know about the identity of the resisting fighters comes from press accounts about surrendering Iraqi soldiers and articles apparently based on U.S. intelligence. The fighters could be Fedayeen, other armed popular forces, tribal militia, foreign Islamist groups in Iraq, or some of the more than 100,000 people thought to be employed in Iraq's security services. Or they could be other groups entirely. The Pentagon itself seems unsure; spokesmen have called the guerrilla fighters different things at different times, often settling on general terms like "thugs" or "terrorists."

Who are the Fedayeen fighters?

Mostly young men aged 16 and up. They are armed with machine guns, rocket-powered grenade launchers, and truck-mounted artillery. Fedayeen reportedly dress in civilian clothes in order to confuse coalition forces. Pentagon officials said March 24 that the Fedayeen, who are considered very loyal to the regime, also act as enforcers in regular army units, threatening to kill soldiers who try to surrender.

Is the Fedayeen separate from the Iraqi army?

Yes. The militia is thought to answer directly to Saddam's eldest son, Uday, bypassing the military chain of command. The leader of the force is believed to be General Iyad Futiyeh Rawi, a staunch Saddam loyalist who was awarded 27 medals during the 1980-88 war with Iran. Uday, 38, is one of the top targets of the U.S.-led invasion.

When was the Fedayeen founded?

In 1995, by Uday. Though much remains unknown about the group, military experts believe it started out as a rag-tag force of some 10,000 to 15,000 drawn from regions most loyal to the Baath regime. Uday has used the force for personal ends, placing it in charge of smuggling and using it to attack, torture, and murder opponents. He lost control of the militia in 1996, apparently after transferring sophisticated weapons to it from the Republican Guard without Saddam's permission, according to reports from Iraqi defectors. In recent years, the force appears to have been placed back under his control.

What does it do?

In addition to organizing smuggling and other illegal efforts along Iraq's borders, the group is thought to be directly responsible for some of the regime's most brutal acts. It is widely reported to operate a death squad that conducts extra-judicial executions. The U.S. State Department, for example, accuses the Fedayeen of beheading more than 200 women as part of an alleged anti-prostitution campaign. Some of the families of the victims were forced to display the heads outside their homes. "Many of the victims were not engaged in prostitution, but were targeted for political reasons," according to a March 20 State Department report.

What are the other popular militia groups in Iraq?

Popular militias--forces drawn directly from the population that are not part of the formal security apparatus--are common in Iraq. The Iraqi regime claims millions of Iraq's 24 million citizens are involved in them. Experts say popular forces include:

  • Al Quds (Jerusalem) Brigades. Experts say this is intended to be a mass volunteer force, with female as well as male units. The Iraqi regime showcases the brigades at public marches and other propaganda events and claims it has up to 7 million members. U.S. experts say its strength is greatly exaggerated by the Iraqis. But they also believe that at least some al Quds members--who hail largely from Sunni areas in the middle of the country--have been given rifles, mortars, and light automatic weapons.
  • The Youth Civil Defense Force. There are reports that a so-called youth army, made up of 12 to 17 year-olds, was formed in 1999 to defend the cities. It is unclear that such a force exists, but some Iraqi media coverage does show youths and adults being trained and possibly armed for such a role.
  • Ashbal Saddam, or Saddam's Cubs. This is a military organization for children aged 10 to 16 that holds annual war training camps. However, like other popular forces, the extent to which it is involved in the war is unknown.
Could the regime's special security forces also be behind the guerrilla fighting?

Yes. Fighters could be from the Special Security Organization (SSO), or al-Amn al-Khas, an ultra-loyal force of 2,000 to 5,000 men that is thought to play a major role in surveillance of all of the other security services. Controlled by Saddam's younger son, Qusay, the SSO has its own military brigade that serves as a rapid-response unit independent of the military establishment.

At least a dozen other security forces are thought to exist in Iraq, and could be playing a role in fighting or compelling regular army personnel or civilians to fight. Two overlapping security services, the Military Intelligence Service and the Military Security Service, monitor the army for loyalty. Each of these units is believed to have between 3,000 and 6,000 men.

On the local level, agents from the General Security Service (GSS), or al-Amn al-Amm, work as the regime's eyes and ears. The GSS monitors daily life in every town and village, has more than 8,000 estimated agents, countless local informants, and its own paramilitary wing, according to military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

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