For months now, American military planners have been preparing to fight what they thought were Saddam Hussein's most dangerous troops, the Republican Guard. But in the war so far, the irregular forces, the paramilitaries in civilian clothes, have provided the biggest challenge to U.S. forces. The most vicious group to emerge is the Fedayeen Saddam. Translation: Those willing to die for Saddam. Correspondent Dan Rather reports.
Mohammed Abdul Majid was a major in the Iraqi Army until he defected in 1991.
In the Middle East today – we've been asked not to say exactly where–Abdul Majid told Correspondent Randall Pinkston how he helped set up the unit that eventually became the Fedayeen.
"They use a lot of fear, and horror," he says. "They scare the people. They are well trained. They are well trained in killing. I'm not sure if they are trained in battles, big battles--you know, like we train in the Army."
They are, he says, trained for assassination. They are trained to kill opposition members. They are trained to scare people. Some of the Fedayeen, he says, were taken straight out of prisons to join the unit.
Mohammed Abdul Majeed told us he helped train a new elite military intelligence and special operations unit 13 years ago. It was modeled after the British SAS.
But when the unit came the attention of Saddam and his sons, they decided to turn it into their own private police force, their enforcers, the Fedayeen.
Their first job, three or four years ago, was to behead prostitutes and parade their remains in the streets of Baghdad and Basra. The public demonstration, Abdul Majeed says, was intended "to terrorize the people," to tell them, "We are around you all the time. You can't even wink, you know? And this, this is fear."
When they parade in Baghdad, the Fedayeen dress and strut like Ninja warriors. But in southern Iraq, they threw away these outfits to infiltrate the towns and cities, blending in with the population.
Former CIA analyst Dan Byman, currently a professor at Georgetown University, says there may be up to 50,000 Fedayeen.
"The Fedayeen are primarily comprised of, essentially, thugs drawn from the countryside who were recruited by Saddam's older son to join this unit," Byman says, "acting as paramilitary forces to put down civilian revolts, not necessarily to fight large conventional battles."
Their current civilian dress, Byman notes, also makes it easy for them to "strike more effectively as guerillas."
They would regard the Geneva Convention as "a joke." These rules of war, he says, "are something written by the strong. And these rules of war favor the United States, because they cannot compete on conventional combat, so therefore they should be disregarded because they won't work."
In practice, says Mohammed Abdul Majid, the Fedayeen are "100 percent terrorists, as far as we Iraqis are concerned."
With the start of the United States military action, they have blended in with other Iraqi militias and forces, fanning out all over Iraq. They are threatening to kill not only American soldiers but Iraqis, too.
There have been reports that Fadayeen are under orders to shoot any Iraqi soldier who threatens to surrender. Abdul Majid says they "will shoot soldiers, civilians, their own people, their own family members, in order to protect Saddam Hussein and his regime at the moment. Especially at this time."
There are Fedayeen in Nasirayah, Abdul Majid says, and they are ready to kill anyone who tries to revolt against Saddam. The civilians, he says, "have nowhere to go to. They have to fight because there's somebody watching over them with a gun."
They announced on an Al Jazeera broadcast, he says, "'We will kill the Americans, and kill everyone who would not kill Americans.' And I thought, you know, that was a big message."
In the desert sand storms outside Nasiriyah, the Fedayeen have disrupted the American battle plan and disoriented unit commanders like Colonel Curtis Potts from the Army's Third Division. "The disturbing thing about these folks is their tactics," Col. Potts says. "They are using Iraqi families as human shields, as you witnessed last night."
He finds it hard to believe that the leader of a nation would do that to his people. "It angers me that this is what they have to do, but we'll get through it," Col. Potts says.
The Fedayeen surprised Col. Potts and other commanders by moving into southern Iraq. They were expected to stay in Baghdad to protect Saddam Hussein. Many of them come from Saddam's own tribe. They are better paid than most regular soldiers, and they are fanatically loyal to the dictator and his sons.
There have been reports that Saddam trusts the Fadayin more than the Republican Guard.
Abdul Majid discounts that idea: "Saddam Hussein does not trust anyone. Saddam Hussein trusts only himself. But he always has units watching other units. You know, he has the Republican Guards. But he has the Special Republican Guards watching over the Republican Guards."
Then he has the the Special Operators watching over the Special Republican Guards. And now, he has got the Fadayin Saddam watching over the Republican Guards and others.
This former Iraqi colonel suspects that Saddam–wherever he is now, and he is probably literally underground in a bunker—has ordered American POWs to be held close by. "Somewhere around--underneath the earth," he says. "Ten stories underneath, probably, eight stories underneath. Somewhere around his headquarters. He'll keep them next to him."
Much of the news coverage of the war so far overwhelmingly centers on the U.S. military engaging Republican Guard units, both regular Republican Guard and the so-called special Republican Guard. Is this a mistake? Should we refocus on the Fedayeen?
Former CIA analyst Daniel Byman says the Fedayeen "and, more broadly, other paramilitary forces, are probably the greatest long-term threat to coalition forces. The U.S. military and other coalition forces are exceptionally skilled at modern conventional war."
But they are not as skilled, Byman says, in dealing with the Fedayeen. Their guerrilla tactics have already slowed down the American march on Baghdad.
Former Iraqi Army Colonel Abdul Majid thinks it would be a mistake to get sucked in by the Fedayeen. Keep moving, he says, don't get distracted by the Fedayeen, keep moving to Baghdad.
If American military commanders were to ask him for advice on the best way to proceed from here, at the end of the first week, of the war, Abdul Majid would tell them this:
"Push towards Baghdad. Don't enter any cities. Just Baghdad. Go to the heart. Topple the regime. And then, the cities will definitely—once the regime is gone, the people will know that the regime is gone. I'm sure that the war will finish."
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