Latest News

Once-feared Fedayeen fighter now stays hidden behind locked door

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The war for Baghdad ended two weeks ago, and still Saddam Mohamed, 26, does not venture outside. He does not trust what the Iraqi people will do to him. He does not trust what the American troops will do to him.

"I do not see a future in Iraq," he said softly. "I do not have hope."

During the war, Mohamed was one of the Fedayeen, the most fanatical fighters, pledged to defend Saddam Hussein's regime. Now he is among the thousands of soldiers who shed their uniforms and blended into the city, but not back into city life. They remain hidden, like Mohamed, who hides behind a locked gate in the darkened courtyard of his family's middle-class home, surrounded by five brothers, his closest friends and his parents.

Since the war ended, some Iraqi soldiers have approached U.S. troops and turned themselves in, said Capt. Jared Robbins, 33, of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Men like Mohamed, however, don't interest the United States very much. The U.S. military has hired some of them as translators. It sends most of them home to sit and wait.

It is not easy to contact them. Mohamed was interviewed only after conversations with go-betweens and after several canceled appointments.

Khalid Jassem, 28, was a member of the Iraqi army until an Iraqi officer announced one day that the war was over. His military-issued, loaded AK-47 assault rifle leans on a living room bookshelf, but he said he is afraid to go outside.

As for the future, Jassem said only that he will not join any new military. But he has little hope for his job prospects. The children in his neighborhood selling soft drinks earn more than he does.

Mohamed was one of the most feared fighters of the regime. Not feared in the sense that his small group—1,500 on the south side of the capital—could have posed a threat to American forces. They could not. Dressed in black shirts, black pants, black shoes and black berets, they carried handguns and swords—long daggers he called them.

Yet some referred to them as Saddam's elite force. Their job was to be loyal to the protection of Saddam and his family. In all, about 40,000 young men were a part of the force.

During training sessions, U.S. Marines and soldiers were warned that they were fanatically devoted to the regime. "If you see them, shoot them," were the words of one officer.

But Mohamed seems neither frightening nor fanatical on this hot afternoon, as he carefully sips hot tea from an hourglass-shaped glass. His eyes dart around the small courtyard, large enough for a porch and patch of dirt containing one tree and one bush. His voice is a whisper, and it is up to his mother and father to offer emotional defenses when he is questioned about his past activities.

"He had no choice but to join when they came for him," said his father, a former intelligence officer in the Iraqi army. "No one had a choice under Saddam."

The Fedayeen were a secret police in peace time, called into action only when needed. The call was known to all Iraqis and feared by most. Television shows would be interrupted by a performance of a patriotic song. Fedayeen knew to report to their headquarters. Others knew this meant they would soon be active.

Their activities come straight out of the tales told to frighten children. If you spoke ill of the government, the Fedayeen would come for you. If you ran from the army, they would come for you. If you were believed to be an enemy of the state, a sympathizer with America or Israel or a political threat, they would come for you. Most they simply arrested, but there are those who lost their tongues because of overheard criticisms.

"I couldn't bring myself to do such things," Mohamed said, looking into his questioners' eyes. "If I was alone and I caught the man who had run away from the army, I could not bring myself to send him to jail. He would beg for mercy, tell me of his wife and children and how he needed to make money for them, and I would let him go.

"But sometimes I wasn't alone."

He hadn't started out to be a soldier of any sort, at least of any real sort. Eight years ago, he was a theater major at Baghdad University when he was told to report to the government for assignment. He had planned to be an actor, had just finished playing Othello in Shakespeare's play of the same name.

There is an element of theater in the Fedayeen. Iraqi television ran specials on them, showed them as masters of swordplay, able to leap from airplanes and shoot guns accurately. There were even scenes of them eating live animals. It was all show.

"At first, when I started, I liked it," he said. "I was curious to see the truth behind all I'd heard, and there was little. We never ate live animals. We never jumped out of planes."

And, he said, any young man would enjoy weapons training and fight training. It was a macho, manly atmosphere, and while difficult, it was fun.

But soon other orders started coming, and the arrests began.

"What else could I do?" he said. "I was chosen. I had to serve."

They also spent time preparing for war. He said some attention was paid to the United States in these preparations, but not nearly as much time as was spent focusing on Iraq's one true enemy.

"Again and again, we were warned that Israel was coming," he said. "We were told that the war might not be today or tomorrow, but it was soon, and we must be ready to defend the nation."

He said that when war began with the United States, they were told not to worry, that the Americans would be defeated and would never get near Baghdad. In fact, he said, staring at the ground, shifting his eyes from friend to friend, to father, he was allowed to leave the Fedayeen just before the war began. He was sent into military school, to be trained as an officer. He wanted to be an officer, he explained.

"I was inside Baghdad when the American tanks rolled into our city," he said. "I was not even part of the fight. There was no fight for Baghdad. We had been told the Americans had been defeated in the south, that they had returned to America empty-handed and that victory was ours.

"Just like everyone else, I was surprised when they arrived," he said.

Earlier in the war, Mohamed's Fedayeen unit was called to fight for Karbala, a holy city in Iraq. He was placed with his group into a Republican Guard division, given a battlefield promotion to major and sent to defeat the Americans.

What he saw was a force he could not have imagined. Many, many of his friends were killed before his eyes. American tanks and airplanes tore the Republican Guard to pieces there. And he tore off his uniform and walked the 60 miles home to Baghdad, avoiding Americans, until he was close enough to arrange for help and a ride home.

Since that time, he's been here, on this porch, waiting, for the Americans, for angry Iraqis, for someone to come for him.

"Maybe," he said, finally, "Iraq will be a better place after all of this. I have doubts. But I hope this is the case."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.