They began as what analysts at the time dismissed as a "toy army," a pet project of Saddam's volatile eldest son, Uday. He recruited the Saddam Fedayeen ("Martyrs for Saddam") as a special bodyguard for his father. At first, according to experts on Iraq and defectors from Saddam's inner circle, they did little more than Uday's twisted bidding---picking up girls for him to rape, beating Olympic athletes for losing games, cutting out the tongues of critics of the regime. Meanwhile Uday's younger and more reliable brother Qusay took charge of his father's most important paramilitary organizations, especially the feared Special Security Office and the elite Special Republican Guard.
Uday recruited the fedayeen in orphanages and prisons, where candidates for his unique blend of psychopathy and filial devotion were plentiful. The militia grew so large that in September, 1996, Qusay took control, ostensibly after a scandal in which the Fedayeen were caught siphoning off hi-tech military weaponry from the Republican Guard.
Last week the Fedayeen posed the most worrisome challenge so far to American advance into Iraq. According to U.S. military intelligence, the Saddam Fedayeen now number from 20,000 to 40,000 fighters. That compares to 90,000 U.S. troops inside Iraq by the end of last week. (Though 100,000 more U.S. troops will be deployed during the next several weeks). Though they are lightly armed, usually with AK-47s, mortars and RPGs, their methods are ruthless and unorthodox. A column of 200 to 300 Fedayeen was spotted on Highway 1, heading south from Baghdad toward Al Hillah in central Iraq, dressed in British and American uniforms. Some had suicide-bomber type vests with explosives strapped on. In Az Zubayr, in southern Iraq, soldiers blamed the Fadayeen for a spate of incidents in which Iraqi soldiers pretended to be surrendering and then opened fire. In nearby Basra, deserters said the Fedayeen summarily executed soldiers from Iraq's 51st Division who didn't want to fight. British officers said the tenacious resistance they found in the port city of Umm Qasr came from Fedayeen dressed as civilians and fighting from private homes. All along the Americans' 300-mile-long advance into Iraq, the Fedayeen were blamed for ambushes and sniper fire. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denounced them as criminals. "If their wish is to die for Saddam Hussein," he railed, "they will be accommodated."
No one had expected the Saddam Fedayeen to amount to much in a military conflict. Beating up civilians was always more their style. "I'm surprised by the fact that they're shooting outside the cities," said Lt. Greg Holmes, an intelligence officer in the 37th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division. Holmes's unit, which has advanced deep into Iraq, has been interrogating three captured Fedayeen officers, including a lieutenant colonel. They have revealed that some 3,000 of the fighters have gathered in Al Hillah and in Al Kifl, north of Najaf to try to thwart the division's line of advance towards the Iraqi capital. Holmes's division has already been repeatedly attacked, usually by mortars, by Fedayeen from Nasiriyah to Najaf. "I'm surprised by their tenacity," Holmes said. Fortunately for U.S. troops, their aim has been less impressive. During one sustained barrage, Holmes said, "we were basically sitting still," and none of the mortars hit anyone.
Elsewhere the Fedayeen were more successful. Saddam Fedayeen were even responsible for an ambush last Sunday over Najaf of the 101st Division's 11th Aviation Regiment, according to the unit's after-action report, NEWSWEEK learned. One chopper was downed, its two pilots taken prisoner. The other 33 helicopters sustained major damage on the mission, the report says. The Fedayeen used cellphones to coordinate massed small arms fire from roads and rooftops along the lanes the choppers were using when they approached the city.
In the first days of the war, American troops raced past the Fedayeen along their route in an effort to get as close as possible to Baghdad. As coalition casualties began to climb, officials refused to admit that had been a mistake. But they were clearly adjusting their tactics. One example: when U.S. Marines in the First Division noticed many abandoned mortars beside the highway, pointing their way, they staked one out until nightfall. Then three suspected Fedayeen in civilian clothes snuck up to put the weapon in action-and the Marines ambushed them. "We're fighting two wars here," says Marine Colonel Bryan McCoy. "There's the conventional war against conventional troops and that's in the front, and what we're also fighting is a textbook guerrilla war, and that's all around us." Army commanders elsewhere were adjusting their tactics similarly, stopping to hunt down their Fedayeen tormentors. That may well slow up the advance to Baghdad, but it may also save a lot of American lives.