Hussein's loyal fighters still a Baghdad threat

One militant abandons his mission to target civilians.

Early Monday morning, the order to kill had finally come.

Raed Abdulrudha, an Iraqi militant of Saddam Hussein's fedayeen paramilitary group, had waited patiently in a teeming Baghdad suburb throughout the US bombing of his country, and then through the collapse of his leader.

His mission was not to defend the regime during war. With other fedayeen - "those who sacrifice themselves" - it was to make a post-Hussein peace impossible.

So at 3 a.m. Monday, armed with a cellphone, hand grenades, and an assault rifle, Mr. Abdulrudha slipped into a crowded neighborhood in Saddam City, Baghdad's vast Shiite Muslim district. The plan called for the young-faced fedayeen to throw a grenade to attract a crowd. Then he was to use the phone to deliver his coordinates to a fedayeen position, which would shell the position. But the would-be killer lost heart.

"The idea was to blame the Americans, to show that they were killing civilians," Abdulrudha recalls, sitting in a room at the Assadjad Mosque here, where he was being held at gunpoint by local vigilantes. "I was "I was feeling guilty. I saw the crowds of people, the children, and I hesitated."

Two other fedayeen with the same mission in different parts of Saddam City did not fail, however. The result was two explosions that injured several people, according to local religious officials.

"I cleaned them up myself," said Saeed Ali Mussawi, a bearded and black-turbaned Shiite cleric, with the small round glasses of an intellectual. He said American units engaged the fedayeen artillery.

"During the war, we had only one injured child," he says. "When these fedayeen and others came, we had 50 dead in this neighborhood alone."

The widespread looting and anarchy of recent days in Baghdad may be slowing down. This mosque is serving as a large collection point for the return of looted goods, and normal life is beginning to return. Some telephone exchanges are back on line, electric power is expected soon in some parts of the city, and shops are beginning to open.

But the persistence in Baghdad's streets of the fedayeen - the 5,000 loyalists who are bolstered by other Arab fighters, and who have presented the stiffest resistance to US forces as they battled their way up to the capital - highlights the threat of guerrilla attacks against Iraqis and Americans alike.

The calm, in fact, can be shattered in seconds, as a dramatic attack Monday afternoon on the Qadisiya Hospital in Saddam City illustrated.

Vigilante groups, with the blessing of local sheikhs, have set up a series of roadblocks across the city, to both deter looters and snag Fedayeen.

But gunmen guarding this hospital were shocked when fedayeen disguised as patients managed to sneak into the wards, seize the hospital and, they say, rig it with explosives.

One man wearing a pale blue hospital staff smock - identified as Syrian by local gunmen - had concealed hand grenades in a white plaster cast on his arm. He was shot dead, just inside the hospital gate.

Citing safety reasons, agitated gunmen forced a Western visitor and his translator from the scene before the two other Fedayeen could be dealt with.

"These people are very talented - every day they change their tactics," says cleric Mussawi, who sat in on the interview with the fedayeen prisoner. "The [former] government is doing this deliberately, to spark unrest, to prove that we must have Saddam's strong hand, that this society only knows blood and force, and can't help blowing itself up."

Indeed, sitting stiffly and afraid, but with no sign of mistreatment from his captors, Abdulrudha describes a cynical mission of the fedayeen.

Plans for such disruption were in place long before American planes dropped their first bombs on Baghdad, he said, and before US troops first crossed the berm from Kuwait to invade.

Groups of 25 fedayeen moved into each district of Baghdad to ensure postwar chaos, says Abdulrudha, a Shiite Muslim from the southern city of Nasiriyah, who joined the fedayeen two years ago.

"They had given the order: when we heard a certain patriotic song on the television, that was the signal for us to begin operations," Abdulrudha says.

Units included 150 suicide bombers who were set up with "belts of explosives to kill themselves in crowded areas."

Out in his garden working, Abdulrudha missed the call-up signal, and a crew of Fedayeen came to get him.

He was among 50 other fedayeen who secretly infiltrated to a safe house in Saddam City in early March, two weeks before the war began. There, they got to know local people and laid low during the war and its collapse. Then they swung into action.

"My job was to look for crowds of people, and alert the others, Abdulrudha recalls. "But once I heard my mission was to kill those people, I couldn't go on with it ... I gave myself up."

But as the young-faced fedayeen claimed that he had been forced to join, cleric Mussawi cut him off, reminding him that the fedayeen were reportedly paid 500,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $200, for each operation.

"You were not forced," the cleric spat out. "You fedayeen are hypocrites. Fedayeen is a missionary job; you are misrepresenting the faith, and slaves of wealth. You've lost all your respect for human life."

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