CAIRO, Egypt – Saddam Hussein's most trusted paramilitary militia, Saddam's Fedayeen, has assassinated the Iraqi leader's enemies, put down protests and ruthlessly cracked down on dissidents since its founding in 1995.
Now, with U.S.-led coalition troops advancing toward Baghdad, the Fedayeen — whose name means "those ready to sacrifice themselves for Saddam" — are showing putting up stiff resistance and trying to prevent regular army soldiers from surrendering.
Reports from the front suggest members of the Fedayeen may have organized battlefield ruses, like posing as civilians or faking surrender, to draw U.S. and British forces into traps. Such scenes played out in An Nasiriyah and Umm Qasr, where the advancing troops suffered their first major casualties.
U.S. intelligence believes the Fedayeen were dispatched from their strongholds in the Baghdad area to outlying areas over the last few weeks.
The guerrillas were formed to quash internal dissent and disturbances after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, especially in the oppressed Shiite Muslim areas in central and southern Iraq. The first recruits — all extremely loyal to the ruling Baath party — included criminals who were pardoned in exchange for serving in the units.
Analysts estimate the force could number up to 40,000, broken into brigades of 3,000 each. Their training includes urban warfare and suicide missions. One of their endurance drills is to survive on snakes and dog meat.
They dress in black uniforms and cover their faces with black scarves to instill fear, although they have also been known to operate in civilian clothes.
Ail Abdel Amir, an Iraqi journalist operating in neighboring Jordan, said Saddam trusts the force even more than his elite Republican Guard.
"They have blind loyalty, they might even kill their fathers if they are ordered to do so," he told The Associated Press from Amman.
Fedayeen members receive monthly salaries of up to $100, compared to the $3 government employees are paid each month. They receive plots of land and other privileges, such as extra food rations and free medical care.
The Fedayeen report directly to Saddam's eldest son, Odai, a powerful figure in Iraq with a reputation for extravagance and violence.
In 1998, Fedayeen members swept the Shiite city of Karbala looking for would-be assassins of Izzat Ibrahim, Saddam's deputy on the Revolution Command Council, Iraq's highest executive body. Ibrahim survived the assassination attempt, but hundreds of people were arrested in the sweeps.
In 1999, the Fedayeen were responsible for a crackdown on Shiites in a Baghdad suburb who were protesting the assassination of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, a leading Iraqi Shiite cleric, and his two sons in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf. Dozens of people were killed in the operation.
This month, Al Zawra, a weekly newspaper owned by Odai, reported that Fedayeen units were sent to the southern town of Al-Majar to crush a protest by villagers. They reportedly destroyed three houses and took the families into custody.
Earlier this month, U.S. officials claimed Fedayeen members were acquiring military uniforms "identical down to the last detail" to those worn by American and British forces and planned to use them to shift blame for atrocities.
Middle East military analysts, however, say the force is too poorly equipped to match the U.S. troops.
"They are a little nuisance that can make some trouble, but not hinder the advance of the troops," said Mohammed Qadri Saeed, a military analyst at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.