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'Irregulars,' ambushes keep troops on edge

Returning to a Marine base near the Iraqi border from combat missions over the southern city of Nasiriyah, several U.S. Marine helicopter pilots said Iraqis had come out waving white flags, apparently to signal surrender to American ground troops.

Then, the pilots said, the Iraqis opened fire on American forces.

The irregular Iraqi forces said to be responsible for these deceptive — and lethal — tactics in the south are shaping up as one of the most difficult surprises of the war. Various paramilitary and security groups were expected to surrender or desert on a scale similar to that of Iraq's regular troops, many of whom have given up. But now there are signs that the irregulars are desperately resisting, owing their livelihoods, and often their lives, to Saddam Hussein's regime.

U.S. troops are swiftly shifting their tactics and mentality as word of irregular Iraqi ambushes and subterfuge spreads. Many of the paramilitary fighters wear civilian clothes, rather than uniforms. "When we came here, we were told everybody wants to surrender, nobody wants to fight," said Marine Cpl. James Lis, 21. "Now (Iraqi civilians) wave at me, and I wave back through my rifle sight."

What changed Lis' view were reports from Sunday's intense battle in Nasiriyah, on the Euphrates River. Marine officers say several Americans were killed and scores were wounded in a fight with men in civilian garb who grabbed weapons dropped by surrendering Iraqi troops and attacked.

The Iraqis "are sending forces out carrying white surrender flags or dressing them as liberated civilians to draw coalition forces into ambushes," Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said. "Both of these actions are among the most serious violations of the laws of war."

"We will be much more cautious in the way we treat the battlefield as a result of these incidents," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John Abizaid said at a briefing in Qatar on Sunday. Beyond the dangers to American and British troops, the irregulars' resistance near populated areas creates a serious risk of drawing allied firepower in the direction of innocent bystanders.

Saddam's motley assemblage of irregular forces includes rank-and-file members of his Baath political party, Iraq's multiple secret-police services and the ruling family's own guerrilla unit, the Fedayeen Saddam, which means "those who will sacrifice themselves for Saddam."

Like latter-day janissaries — the elite fighting corps of the Ottoman Empire — many of the Fedayeen fighters were orphans brought up from a young age to be fiercely loyal only to their leader.

As long as Saddam is alive — and he appeared on Iraqi state television on Monday — his irregulars are now thought likely to keep resisting. The dictator has a long history of savage reprisals against those who betray him.

And the paramilitaries would be the people most likely to face harsh punishment or death in a post-Saddam Iraq because, unlike ordinary military draftees, they are most closely identified with the regime's violent excesses. The Fedayeen, for example, have been known to cut out people's tongues for criticizing the government, Iraqis say.

Much of the resistance could melt away if the Iraqi ruler were deposed, said Dilshad Ahmed, an Iraqi-Kurdish fighter on the front lines in the country's north. "America must smash the Iraqis, bomb them hard, without stopping!" Founded by Saddam's oldest son, Uday, in 1995, the Fedayeen are believed to have more than 20,000 men, scattered throughout Iraq's major cities, U.S. military officials said. They carry light arms and reside among ordinary civilians. The Fedayeen serve as both informants and enforcers for the Baghdad regime.

U.S. soldiers complain the Fedayeen are difficult to deal with because they don't follow commonly accepted rules of warfare. The false-surrender tactic, for example, is a war crime under the Geneva Convention.

Several American prisoners of war were apparently executed — also a war crime — after Iraqi forces thought to be Fedayeen ambushed 12 members of a lightly armed supply unit on Sunday near Nasiriyah.

Poorly trained and drawn from the lower classes of Iraqi society, the Fedayeen were considered insignificant riff-raff by some war planners in Washington, other U.S. officials now say. One Pentagon official said last fall, "The Fedayeen will run with their tails between their legs" at the first sign of trouble.

If the war evolves into a guerrilla campaign, that could nullify many of the advantages of superior U.S. firepower. Another fear is that stiff Iraqi resistance will heighten surging anti-Americanism across the Arab world. Already, some important Islamic clerics are calling for "jihad," or holy war, to defend the Iraqi people.

Referring to Iraq, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand sheikh of Egypt's prominent Al-Azhar Mosque, told worshippers at last Friday's prayers in Cairo, "Jihad in Islam is meant to defend religion, money, soul and freedom, and to support those who are subject to injustice." His call to take up arms against the American invaders was particularly significant, not just because of Sheik Tantawi's prestige in the Arab world but also because, as someone who condemned the Sept. 11 attacks, he has traditionally been viewed as a relative moderate. Nearly 10,000 protestors took to the streets in Cairo in a violent demonstration following the cleric's remarks.

The irregulars' persistence in the south could complicate the U.S. military's desire to be seen as a friendly liberator, rather than hostile invader. Az Zubayr, a small town near the southern city of Basra, was supposed to be one of the earliest American prizes, a showcase of cheering Shiite Muslims — long victims of Mr. Hussein's cruelty — welcoming Western troops.

That could still come to pass. But five days into the war, its alleyways and side streets are firmly in the grip of irregular Iraqi fighters, who roam the area with impunity, just hundreds of yards from coalition outposts. They appear to remain under the command of superiors in Basra, just up the road, who successfully repelled British forces from the city yesterday after a fierce gun battle, a U.K. spokesman said.

Coalition forces may also have misread how effective lightly armed Iraqi street fighters could be, attacking and then blending into civilian populations. This tactic — employed by Palestinian militants against the Israeli military in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — beckons allied troops and pilots to retaliate in crowded areas, increasing the chances innocent bystanders will be killed.

In a clash last Friday, U.S. Marine Cpl. Lis and his comrades came under fire as they entered a small village near Az Zubayr. From inside the cramped troop compartment of an American assault vehicle, bullets could be heard hitting the truck, which was left pockmarked.

The Marines piled out of the back hatch to return fire with grenades, machine guns, rifles and rockets. The shooting lasted 40 minutes, but the Americans, who suffered no injuries, never located their adversaries with certainty. The Marines said they suspect the people who fired on them were the same Iraqis who greeted them warmly as they entered the village.

Attacking an enemy hiding among civilians, coalition forces inevitably are causing the sort of civilian casualties they hoped to avoid. On Sunday, at a British medical tent on the outskirts of Az Zubayr, an Iraqi woman pulled up in a car, screaming that a U.S. helicopter rocket had killed her entire family, except for a seven-year-old son. The boy was taken in by some foreign medics, she said, and was missing.

The British medics told her they had seen no such boy. A friend of the woman gently eased her back into the car.

"We don't want to hurt the civilian population," said Maj. Andy Churchill, who commands a British army outpost nearby. "We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people. They're very friendly." Yesterday, one British soldier was killed near Az Zubayr as he tried to calm rioting Iraqi civilians.

U.S. Marines say they are taking a harder line with locals in response to attacks on American troops by fighters in civilian clothes. "You've got no friends in this country," Second Lt. Isaac Moore, a platoon leader with the Seventh Marines, told his men. "The only friends you have here are wearing green next to you." Marine pilots at the base near the Iraqi border recounted that some Iraqi ground troops in the south had attempted to surrender to helicopters overhead. The pilots said they greeted such offers warily. "For all we know, these people who are always surrendering can just jump back in the vehicles and start firing," one pilot said. Several pilots reported accepting surrender pleas, then making multiple passes over the same Iraqi troops to ensure they wouldn't resume fighting.

By now, coalition planners had hoped to be distributing boatloads of humanitarian supplies to hungry Iraqis through the southern port of Umm Qasr. But because of irregular resistance, allied forces have been unable to clear a safe corridor for bringing in the goods.

"At least Saddam Hussein gave us food," said Ali Ibrahim, a local government employee. "We had no food from the Americans. I'm worried that the Americans won't go away, just like in Afghanistan. We want water, electricity, and a guarantee from the United Nations that the Americans will leave."

Contributing: Hugh Pope, Michael M. Phillips and Karby Leggett