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Fidayeen recalls struggle for survival

Baghdad, April 13: 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 US troops patrolling his neighbourhood. 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 Fidayeen. “I was sure I was going to die,” he said.

In the American-led invasion of Iraq, Saddam’s Fidayeen, 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 US forces driving relentlessly north. To Iraqi officials who predicted victory until the day before Baghdad’s fall, the Fidayeen was the prototype of a guerrilla force that would, they said, drive out US 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, barrelling 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.

The Fidayeen militia recruited many young men like Tahsin, destitute and desperate. Five years ago, his family left the poor neighbourhood 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 Fidayeen 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 neighbourhood of Mahdiyya. From 8 am to 2 pm, 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 Kalashnikovs . Some was intimidating: a jump from a 100-foot-high bridge into the Tigris River that left some recruits with broken bones or dead.

Saturday, Tahsin was nervous. In the days since Hussein’s fall, the once vast apparatus of his government has disappeared.

“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 theAmericans. “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 Fidayeen 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 in the week of roaming through northern Iraq, they faced only bombing, and not all that accurate. They never enountered US ground forces. 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 Fidayeens.

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.

“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 the Baath Party militiamen in the streets. He changed in a house in the neighbourhood 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.

It appears Tahsin’s flight was repeated across Iraq as US 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 Shias, long oppressed by the Sunni -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.

For Tahsin, his priorities are simple. School 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.

``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. 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. 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.''

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.

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