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Pentagon official: Iraqi militias unexpected challenge

From Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. war planners may have miscalculated the strength and capability of paramilitary fighters in Iraq, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.

The official told CNN that "I think we underestimated" the Saddam Fedayeen, a group of paramilitary fighters said to be loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's eldest son, Uday.

These fighters, along with members of the ruling Baath Party and other security forces, have launched several attacks against U.S. and British forces for a week.

"We did not know they were so well-placed" across southern Iraq, the official said. Informal Pentagon estimates indicate that there may be as many as 30,000 Fedayeen troops.

One of the most feared of Iraq's paramilitary groups, Saddam Fedayeen was established as a domestic security organization bypassing the army command hierarchy and answering directly to the Presidential Palace.

The Saddam Fedayeen is known for deceptive tactics, torture, assassinations and a willingness to die for Saddam.

Military sources have not yet indicated any change in strategy. The main U.S. force will continue to press its advance to Baghdad and move against the paramilitary, regular army and Republican Guard forces when possible.

But there is growing concern about the tactics of these paramilitary units.

U.S. military commanders in the field have been warned to take extreme caution about approaching Iraqis who appear to be civilians or surrendering Iraqi troops. In some instances, U.S. forces have been surprised by faked surrenders that have turned into ambushes.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted the U.S. goal is to separate the paramilitary forces in the field from civilian populations that the United States believes are being terrorized.

"We'll look at working those Fedayeen and Republican Guard that may have come down in civilian uniforms to keep a gun in the back of the other people," Myers told reporters Tuesday. "And we'll start working that. And that's what you're seeing right now."

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