The Pentagon is dispatching a new force of Iraqi opposition fighters to fight alongside American troops south of Baghdad, U.S. News has learned.
The Free Iraqi Freedom Fighters, connected to the Iraqi National Congress opposition group, is a combat force numbering roughly 600 to 700, according to senior coalition officials. It is composed of Iraqis from south and central Iraq who have fled Saddam Hussein's rule over the years and taken up arms with Kurdish forces in the north.
The decision to deploy the Iraqi fighters apparently stems from a growing fear in Washington that U.S. forces are being perceived as invaders, but military officials know very little about the new force. Members of the FIFF are believed to have little or no formal military training, but they do have basic soldiering skills from their time with the Kurds.
The U.S. military began flying these Iraqi forces from Kurdish territory to southern Iraq in the past 24 to 48 hours so they could begin evaluating their fighting skills. An estimated 100 to 200 FIFF members have already been moved to U.S.-controlled areas in the south. "We are relocating, reorganizing, and reconstituting" them, says one official.
U.S. officials say they expect the FIFF will be armed and assigned to fight alongside U.S. special forces. "They're going to be fighting," says one official. "They will not be on their own."
These Iraqi fighters are separate from a group of Iraqis that the U.S. military trained in Hungary in February. Some 53 of these "Free Iraqi Forces" have been working since last month with civil affairs officers in the U.S. and British forces. They assist with language interpretation and other functions, but they have not taken part in combat operations.
The deployment of the FIFF comes amid reports that officials from Saddam's Baath Party still wield some power in southern towns that U.S. troops have passed through but not occupied. A Marine Corps intelligence officer reports there have been many executions and killings by Baath Party officials in towns throughout the south after the marines departed. In Nasiriyah, the officer said, there were dozens of hangings and executions. "People won't take down the Saddam posters in their shops and houses," he says. "They know we are going to roll through here, and the Baath Party will still be in charge."