WASHINGTON—The irregular corps of Iraqi gunmen known as Saddam's Fedayeen is better known for torturing the Iraqi leader's opponents than fighting battles.
But it appears that some fedayeen, fighting guerrilla-style, have inflicted significant casualties on coalition forces at Nassiriyah and Umm Qasr in southern Iraq.
U.S. military commanders say they believe fedayeen in Nassiriyah seized members of a U.S. Army unit guarding a Patriot missile battery Sunday and killed a number of them.
Saddam's Fedayeen, with 20,000 members, is led by Hussein's elder son, Uday, and exercises control over both Iraqi civilians and soldiers, experts say. Its members, complicit in a number of alleged atrocities, are likely to fight for their lives to prevent Saddam's downfall, and their own.
"One of their tasks is to stiffen the backs of the conventional forces," said Daniel Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. Fedayeen members "stand behind them with machine guns."
The fedayeen—an Arabic term meaning fighters willing to die for the cause—was formed four years after the 1991 Gulf War, nominally as a ruling Baath Party paramilitary organization.
"They are the enforcers," Byman said. "They keep an eye on the military."
At a military briefing at Central Command headquarters in Qatar, British Maj. Gen. Peter Wall acknowledged that fedayeen and other special security forces were providing much of the resistance.
"These are men who know that they will have no role in the building of a new Iraq, and they have no future," Wall said.
According to U.S. officials, some members of Saddam's trusted Republican Guard, inserted into units in southern Iraq to bolster their determination, may have taken off their uniforms once those units were defeated and continued to fight as deaden guerrillas.
Members are as likely to wear civilian clothes or the black clothing favored by Saddam's secret police as they are to wear uniforms. They normally fight with light weapons, such as machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, but now may be using armor borrowed from Iraqi military units. They also use the conventional tools of torture, such as pliers, experts said.
"They are like the dirtiest of the dirty," said Amatzia Baram, an expert in modern Iraqi history at the University of Haifa in Israel. "They are riff-raff, badly educated and badly trained."
But the members, often youths plucked from rural areas, gain economic and social status when they join the fedayeen, and their loyalty is assured by their complicity in a variety of primitive crimes.
"It doesn't take much training to cut off heads," Baram said. Even so, he added, "If they are fighting behind the (civilian) population, they are a tough target."
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said al Sahhaf on Sunday praised the guerrilla resistance in Umm Qasr, a southern port where U.S.-led troops engaged in street-to-street fighting against the fedayeen.
"Iraqi fighters in Umm Qasr are giving the hordes of American and British mercenaries the taste of definite death," al-Sahhaf said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.