IRBIL, Iraq—A former member of the Iraqi Republican Guard says coalition soldiers should be especially wary of the black-clad fanatics known as the Saddam Fedayeen, or Self-Sacrificers for Saddam—the Iraqi paramilitaries who have been attacking the ground forces in southern Iraq.
"The Fedayeen will never surrender, and every one of them will fight to the death," said the former trooper, who said he served as an adjutant at the God is Great Command Center in Baghdad. "I went through training camp with them and ate my meals with them. They were my colleagues, but they thought of themselves as superior.
"In a way, they are superior. They are quite ready to die for Saddam. The Americans should not underestimate them. They are very ferocious and committed. They're capable of anything."
The guardsman, who recently left the military after a three-year hitch, trained alongside the Fedayeen for several months in Baghdad. Because of the reach and brutality of the Fedayeen, he asked that his real name not be used. He was interviewed Monday at his home in the northern city of Irbil.
Iraqi men, with some exceptions, are required to serve three years in the military. For each 100 recruits, about 10 qualify for the Republican Guards. But only one or two are allowed to become Saddam Fedayeen.
The unit was founded in 1995 by Saddam's notoriously violent son, Odai Hussein, and a recent Jane's Sentinel Report put its membership at 40,000. There's also a youth wing called Ashbal Saddam (Saddam's Lion Cubs) for boys aged 10-16.
All the Fedayeen, the ex-guardsman said, are volunteers. They swear their allegiance to Saddam, and they have special blue patches on their uniform sleeves bearing the motto "God, Homeland, President."
Once they're approved as Fedayeen, the men wear black cotton hoods that leave only their eyes, nose and mouths uncovered. They attend political-education seminars and martial arts training. They're also given the best available weapons, including light artillery and American-made machine guns. They also receive higher salaries, extra benefits and top-quality food.
After their training, some Fedayeen wear civilian clothes and act as secret police in Baghdad and other cities. The former guardsman said they also serve incognito in regular army and Republican Guard units, listening for political dissent or slanders against Saddam.
"They are the security agents who are inserted into all the units," the guardsman said. "When you're in the army, you're never entirely sure who is who."
During the current war, the Fedayeen are part of the so-called Execution Battalions that are empowered to shoot would-be military defectors on sight. They've also reportedly been shooting at civilians who have tried to flee battle zones in the south.
"They're the ones forming the death squads," said Hoshiar Zubairy, chief spokesman for the Iraqi opposition. "They have clear orders to kill, to shoot anyone who has any wavering in their resolve to fight the Americans. They're fighting America and they're fighting those who don't fight America."
The Fedayeen are not part of the army command structure. Their leaders report directly to the 38-year-old Odai. Western intelligence agents say Odai has often used the Fedayeen as his personal army, enforcing his business deals and murdering political opponents.
A recent U.S. State Department report blames the Saddam Fedayeen for the summary execution of 200 alleged prostitutes. The report said the women were beheaded and some of their families were forced to display the heads outside their homes.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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