Fedayeen in classical Arabic literally means "one who is prepared to die," but the word is more generally used to describe guerilla fighters, with connotations of loyalty and ferocity. The armed wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1960s was known as the Fedayeen, for instance.
The Fedayeen Saddam was established in October 1994, said Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank originally set up by the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC. He said the date -- earlier than the 1995 origin cited by many others -- came from Al-Thawra, the Iraqi government newspaper.
No one knows how numerous they are today, he added, but estimates vary between 20,000 and 60,000.
"The membership of this kind of group is fluid," he said.
"(The Fedayeen) were established under the control of (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's eldest son) Uday as a counterweight to the forces controlled by his younger brother, Qusay," Eisenstadt told United Press International. "Qusay controlled the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard and the Special Security Organization. The way Saddam works is to keep everybody off balance by establishing countervailing institutions with overlapping responsibilities to ensure no one person or group gets powerful enough to challenge him."
Eisenstadt said that control of the Fedayeen was turned over to Qusay in September 1996, possibly because Saddam was angry with Uday for diverting weapons and materiel intended for the Republican Guard to the Fedayeen without permission. But he said that in recent years, control appeared to have reverted back to Uday.
According to Eisenstadt, members are recruited from clans loyal to the regime in the capital, in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and in the surrounding Tigris valley area. He describes them as "thugs and bumpkins."
"These are the young people of the sanctions generation," he says, "raised in the personality cult of Saddam. They've never known anything different."
He says the Fedayeen "are at the low end of the food chain in the security apparatus, doing street level work for the regime."
Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst and Middle East specialist who now works at the National Defense University, describes their role as "regime protection and dirty tricks." She says one of their functions was to stiffen the backbone of Iraq's conventional military by putting the fear of death into potential deserters.
As regime loyalists, she adds, they operate totally above the law, and would doubtless be the subject of reprisals if Saddam falls.
"They have nothing to fear and nothing to lose," she concludes.
The Web site of the Washington-area think tank Globalsecurity.org says the Fedayeen enforced the curfew imposed in late 2001 in the regional centers of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Basra, Nasiriya, Babel and Najaf.
"Patrols consisting mainly of members of Fedayeen Saddam were being redeployed in major intersections and strategic sites in these cities," said the article.
Eisenstadt said that, beginning in June 2000, the Fedayeen were in charge of a campaign against prostitution in Iraq. The campaign involved the public beheading of more than 200 women, of whom many were targeted for political reasons, according to the U.S. State Department.
When Iraqi defectors told U.S. authorities about the terrorist training facility at Salman Pak -- where the fuselage of a jumbo jet was used to stage mock hijackings -- they said members of the Fedayeen also trained there, according to The New York Times.
Yaphe says though their training is probably very basic, their use of asymmetric and unconventional warfare tactics -- like disguising themselves as civilians -- means they "very likely will prove a problem in the long term, if they dig in and go underground during the occupation."
Eisenstadt agrees that the Fedayeen are not well trained, and unlikely to employ any kind of tactical sophistication.
"They can harass, they can mount small attacks from hiding but the bottom line is they're no match for regular military."
The Fedayeen reports directly to the presidential palace, bypassing the Iraqi military command structure, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.