View Full Version : A War Waged With a Sword At His Throat

04-13-03, 09:56 AM
A War Waged With a Sword At His Throat

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 13, 2003; Page A01

BAGHDAD, April 12 -- Tahsin glanced uneasily over his shoulder, a well-practiced habit in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. A fugitive, he hurried along an alley near the barbershop where he worked, less than a mile from U.S. troops patrolling his neighborhood. With hardly a look, he passed slogans from a bygone era scrawled on the wall -- "Yes to the leader Saddam."

Settling nervously into a car, he recounted his story as a soldier in Saddam's Fedayeen.

"I was sure I was going to die," he said.

In the American-led invasion of Iraq, Saddam's Fedayeen, a militia whose name translates in Arabic as those who sacrifice themselves for Saddam, was the wild card. With a mix of ambushes, hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings, the militia harried U.S. forces driving relentlessly north. To Iraqi officials who predicted victory until the day before Baghdad's fall, the Fedayeen was the prototype of a guerrilla force that would, they said, drive out U.S. forces.

The odyssey of Tahsin, a 22-year-old with a look of adolescence, followed the contours of the government's struggle to survive, and of its dizzying collapse. In a week of fighting, he went from Baghdad to Tikrit to Kirkuk and then back to the capital, barreling through the north with dozens of others aboard blue buses of the Iraqi soccer team.

Struggling against hopelessness and fear, he prepared for battle under the scrutiny of the militia's swordsmen, appointed to decapitate any deserters. Clad in black fatigues, he weathered bombing and boredom. Then he plotted his escape to the safety of relatives on the Iranian border.

"For what was I going to fight?" he asked.

In a country where a cult of personality was transformed into national ideology, the Fedayeen was one of the odder creations. It was founded in 1995 and its membership numbered perhaps 25,000, with headquarters in Baghdad. In words at least, Fedayeen fighters pledged absolute fealty to Hussein. He entrusted their leadership in his son Uday, who was infamous for his streak of indulgence and cruelty.

For years, the Fedayeen was the long arm of a ruling clique that traditionally viewed the loyalty of its military with suspicion. In both Baghdad and southern Iraq, with a restive Shiite Muslim majority, its members were sent to quash dissent. The Fedayeen brutally repressed protests that raced through the Baghdad slum of Saddam City in 1999 after the assassination of a leading Shiite cleric and two of his sons in the southern city of Najaf.

Like the Baath Party, Fedayeen militiamen were held together by the vast network of patronage that made Hussein's regime so durable. They received salaries twice as large as those of government employees. Even more important were the under-the-table connections that brought perks of power and reinforced government loyalty.

The militia recruited many young men like Tahsin, destitute and desperate. Five years ago, his family left the poor neighborhood of Sayidiya in southern Baghdad for the poorer suburb of Abu Chir, even farther out in the capital's sprawl. Twenty-three people lived in four rooms, among them Tahsin's 11 brothers and sisters. He was the youngest -- or, as he put it, "I'm the last grave."

Tahsin said he joined the Fedayeen after he flunked out of high school in 2001. Facing the prospect of military service, he chose the militia instead. In return, they allowed him to continue his education in a party-run high school.

With 1,000 others, Tahsin was based in the Baghdad neighborhood of Mahdiyya. From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., he reported for training at a camp in the district. One month of the year, he had to perform guard duties at night. For two more months, he had to undergo what the militia called special forces training. Much of it, he said, was rudimentary: hand-to-hand combat, crawling under barbed wire and training with Kalashnikov rifles. Some was intimidating: a jump from a 100-foot-high bridge into the Tigris River that left some recruits with broken bones or dead.

With war approaching, Fedayeen fighters were told that their call to arms was a song that would be broadcast three times, every half-hour. Its refrain said, "The spearhead appeared glimmering between the hills."

For Tahsin, the call came at midnight on March 17. He missed the first broadcast, sleeping through it, but finally made it to the camp on March 20, the day the war started. Their ranks filled up. Foot soldiers wore black; those willing to undertake suicide attacks dressed in white.

"Most of them had no work, some of them were students, some of them just got out of the army," he said.

Today, Tahsin was nervous. In the days since Hussein's fall, the once vast apparatus of his government has virtually disappeared. Gone are the Baath Party militia, senior officials, informers and even traffic policemen. All that is left are the slogans -- "Iraq, victorious, victorious, victorious, it is victorious with the permission of God."

Many Baath Party officers in the neighborhood have not left their homes in days and, if they do, blankly deny involvement in the party. Many feel vulnerable, fearful of vendettas that many predict may be carried out soon. Others worry about drawing the suspicion of U.S. forces, who occupied the nearby Leader of the People Elementary School and sent out foot patrols throughout the day.

"I'm scared of the Americans," Tahsin said. He paused, then smiled, giving voice to the widespread sense in Baghdad that Hussein's government may be only hiding. "I don't want to anger Uday, either," he said, only half-jokingly.

That fear led him to answer the call to fight the Americans. "I was forced to go. If I refused, I would be considered a traitor and they would execute me," he said.

After gathering with other Fedayeen militiamen, Tahsin and his group moved across Iraq, changing locations nearly every day. First they were in Taji, about 25 miles north of Baghdad, then back to the capital after the bombing began. On the third day, they were in Tikrit, the home town of Hussein. From there, riding in the soccer team buses, they barreled north toward Kirkuk. Tahsin sensed they were looking for a fight.

But they were lightly armed, he said, with little more than rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. The favored tactic by his commander was a suicide attack, strapping a belt of remotely controlled explosives on Fedayeen volunteers. But in the week of roaming through northern Iraq, they faced only bombing, and it was not all that accurate. They never encountered U.S. ground forces.

"We didn't see a tank, thank God," Tahsin said. "I think God loves me."

In Kirkuk and Tikrit, they left behind groups of 25 from the 100 that set out. Each group, he said, was joined by men he called "swordsmen." They were dressed in red shoes with a red belt, carrying three-foot-long swords, each with a gray wood handle. Their orders were to decapitate anyone who fled, and a swordsman was specially assigned to the group's commander.

"If they fled, they would cut off their heads," Tahsin said.

It was in Kirkuk, a strategic and oil-rich city that fell to Kurdish forces this week, that Tahsin made his decision to desert. His superiors had nominated him to become a suicide bomber, to throw his body on a tank. That was more than he had bargained for, he said. Tahsin's group left the city before any U.S. forces or Kurdish militias arrived, but he said he knew it was time to leave.

"I was willing to fight with a gun, but not to commit suicide," he said.

He returned to Baghdad with his group, reporting to the People's Stadium. With a guard, he was sent to fetch water for the militiamen. Outside the gate, he told the guard he was going to buy cigarettes, went around the corner and then ran, past the stadium and past the Baath Party militiamen in the streets. He changed in a house in the neighborhood of Zayuna, leaving behind his black uniform and rifle. He made a quick call to his parents, then caught a taxi. He left with nothing more than his student identification in his pocket.

Tahsin said he went as far as he could -- three hours to Mandali, a city northeast of Baghdad on the Iranian border, where his maternal aunt lived. He stayed there until the war in Baghdad ended, returning Friday when he thought it was safe.

"I heard the government fell, and I knew everything was fine," he said. "I knew I could come home."

It appears Tahsin's flight was repeated across Iraq as U.S. forces closed on the capital. His brothers, 26-year-old Salman and 23-year-old Moussa, deserted their army units defending Baghdad one week ago, the first day American troops entered the city. As Shiite Muslims, long oppressed by the Sunni Muslim-dominated Baath Party, it was not a government they wanted to defend. As fathers, they were more interested in taking their families from the front line near Abu Chir and moving them to the relative safety of Saddam City.

"They have families and they fled," Tahsin said.

Like other Iraqis, he said he was now bracing for what's next -- a moment unlike any in the past 35 years, when Iraq is without a government, without authority and with little sense of the future. For Tahsin, his priorities are simple. School is his priority and then "a good life."

"I wish for a car. When I get a car, I want an apartment. When I get an apartment, I hope I can get a wife," he said.

Nothing more? "That's it," he said.

2003 The Washington Post Company



04-13-03, 07:42 PM
Interesting article. Doesn't say much for their training .

04-13-03, 08:12 PM
Sounds like BS to me. A bunch of guys with Kalashnikov rifles are afraid of one guy with a sword? What-were they trained by DeGaulle?