Once feared, now fearful

Retribution: Worried about a backlash, members of the Iraqi regime deny their involvement, keeping their profiles low.

War in Iraq

April 17, 2003|By Michael Slackman | Michael Slackman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Not too long ago, members of the black-uniformed Fedayeen Saddam militias were patrolling the streets of this city, searching for draft dodgers and shooting at U.S. Marines. Dana Jaf was among them.

He is 21, a short, sturdy Kurd with slicked-down black hair and a bearing of youthful pride. But these days he shifts his glance anxiously, peers over his shoulder and quietly insists that the regime forced him into the militia.

"I was not relieved to join them, not my family or myself," he said as he walked the streets of his neighborhood Tuesday, fearful that someone might overhear his conversation. "But I was forced to join them."

For the nearly three decades that President Saddam Hussein held power in Iraq, he relied on many thousands of foot soldiers like Jaf to maintain order. Many say that the regime ruled through fear, and it was the members of the secret police, the intelligence service, the militias, the ministries and the Baath Party who served as the enforcers of that fear.

For their efforts, including their willingness to report on neighbors, they were granted a privileged status that conferred money, schools, jobs and access to the best commodities.

But the perks disappeared with the president, though the memories remain. They are afraid that the men and women they informed on, jailed and tortured will seek retribution. There have been few incidents, but the possibility grows more probable by the day. Looters have taken the files of the security services, and in time they will discover who was responsible for what. Names will emerge, informers will be identified, and tempers will undoubtedly flare.

So Jaf and those like him are keeping their heads low, denying their support for the regime and hoping they are accepted back into society.

"No one has ever chased me because I was a simple fedayeen," Jaf said. "I didn't want to fight. I wanted to live."

Sheik Mohammed Bakr al Basri, 31, a Shiite cleric, is trying to help his community after decades of totalitarian rule. He says he is committed to stopping revenge attacks and helping reintegrate former security agents into the community.

Last Thursday, he asked three men to meet at his mosque in western Baghdad to discuss their changing roles in society.

All three men complained about the collapse of the system and the loss of control. "The fear in the hearts of the people is gone, so now there are only mobs," said Ahmed Hussein Abbas, whom the sheik identified as a longtime member of the intelligence service.

These men have the sheik looking after them, working to bring them into the community. Jaf is on his own, so he has crafted a story about his service that absolves him of responsibility and guilt.

He says it began in November, on a Saturday, the one day he had off from his job as a waiter. Baath Party members came to his home and forced him to go to a military training camp of what Hussein called the Al Quds Brigade, a paramilitary group ostensibly assigned to help "liberate" Jerusalem from the Jews.

For the first five days, all he did was eat and sleep, then they started to train. After a month, he was taken to a more professional military camp, where 800 to 1,000 aspiring fedayeen were training.

"I would like to tell you everything," Jaf said. "I have nothing to hide."

But in an interview, he didn't mention earning 50,000 Iraqi dinars for his trapshooting skills, something he has acknowledged to others in recent days. Nor did Jaf talk about the way he helped catch a draft dodger, an opponent of the regime and a car bomber. He did note that cash bonuses were awarded to those fedayeen who caught so-called enemies of the regime.

Base pay for a new member of the fedayeen, he said, was 40,000 dinars a month - at least double the typical government salary - and 100,000 for more experienced fighters. The most committed loyalists were also awarded land.

But even after laying out inside information on the fedayeen, Jaf insisted that his connection was limited. He was given an assignment and a rifle and told to help defend Baghdad. On the day the war began, he said, he wore civilian clothing beneath his uniform. "When I saw the bombs start to fall, I knew the regime would be over."

Michael Slackman is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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