It’s always difficult to analyze, play-by-play, the progress of war. Only military planners can say with a high degree of accuracy what’s to come. Overall, the trend has been as steady advance from the south. One by one, Allied forces have captured Umm Qasr, Basra, Nasariyah, Samawa, Najaf and right now, Karbalah, with Baghdad now only 50 miles away.
So far, the most alarming development is that of Saddam’s paramilitary forces. More and more, it seems that these individuals – not tanks or contingents of uniformed soldiers – will determine the course of battle. These paramilitaries are mainly the Fedayeen Saddam (“those willing to die for Saddam”) and the military and secret police wings of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party.
These fiercely disciplined irregulars are doing two things. First, they harass Allied troops, thus slowing the advance on Baghdad. Second, they thwart any challenges to Saddam’s rule from Iraqis themselves.
In contrast to the regular Iraqi army – a bunch of poorly-fed conscripts with no loyalty to Saddam – the militias are well armed, well paid and have the most to lose. Numbering around 40,000, they don’t wear uniforms but dress like civilians, and travel on civilian buses and cars. They don’t have tanks and heavy artillery, but rather hand grenades, rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs revealing their intent to delay, harass and inflict casualties, but not to decisively defeat.
Particularly disturbing are the reports about the militiamen waving white flags of surrender, only to open fire as soon as troops get close, and the first suicide bombing against coalition forces. This creates edginess on the part of Allied soldiers and complicates the engagement of those who are actually surrendering or civilians, from which the Fedayeen are indistinguishable.
The Iraqi regular army faces similar circumstances. Like Stalin’s NKVD and Hitler’s SS before them, Saddam has sent up special units immediately behind regular formations with the purpose of killing any Iraqi soldier who attempts to flee battle. Captured Iraqi soldiers have already told us how they faced a choice of fighting or execution.
One Iraqi lay in a hospital bed, his life quickly fading away with a skull shattered by a small-caliber bullet from a officer’s pistol fired at point-blank range. “The officers threatened to shoot us unless we fought. They took out their guns and pointed them and told us to fight.” Another Iraqi confirmed such reports, saying that, “I have four children at home, and [the officers] threatened to hurt them if I did not fight. I had no choice.”
The second purpose of the Fedayeen is to ensure that Iraqi civilians don’t interpret U.S. troops to mean they are free – the very reason they were created in 1991 after widespread Shi’ite rebellions. Over his more than two decades of rule, Saddam still has networks of enforcers, spies and informants in all Iraqi cities. Maintaining internal security means continuing to terrorize civilians.
Saddam dispatched the military and secret police agents to send a message early on in the war. It was reported that one bold woman in Basra who stood in front of a crowd greeting Allied soldiers was found later that night hung in the town square. The message: We’re still here, and we can still get you.
In Safwan, one of the first liberated cities, Iraqis cried out in glee at the arrival of Allied forces. Nonetheless, The New York Times reported that “the joy of their deliverance was muted by the fear that it was too good to last.” The fear of abandonment and reprisals like in 1991 runs deep.
Iraqis are unsure of the outcome, and the ubiquitous images of Saddam’s face means Saddam can hurt them. For this reason, rebellion is still a very dangerous undertaking for anti-Saddam Iraqis.
Joey Tartakovsky is a junior global studies and Slavic studies major.