In 1987 the People's Army (Al Jaysh ash Shaabi--also cited as the Popular Army or People's Militia), standing at an estimated 650,000, approached the regular armed forces' manpower strength. Officially, it was the Iraqi Baath Party Militia and included a special youth section. Formed in 1970, the People's Army grew rapidly, and by 1977 it was estimated to have 50,000 active members. Subsequently, a phenomenal growth, giving the militia extensive internal security functions, occurred. Whereas its original purpose was to give the Baath Party an active role in every town and village, the People's Army in 1981 began its most ambitious task to date, the support of the regular armed forces.
The official functions of the People's Army were to act as backup to the regular armed forces in times of war and to safeguard revolutionary achievements, to promote mass consciousness, to consolidate national unity, and to bolster the relationship between the people and the army in times of peace. The People's Army dispatched units to Iraqi Kurdistan before 1980 and to Lebanon to fight with Palestinian guerrillas during the 1975-76 Civil War. Foreign observers concluded, however, that the primary function of the People's Army was political in nature; first, to enlist popular support for the Baath Party, and second, to act as a counterweight against any coup attempts by the regular armed forces.
Beginning in 1974, Taha Yasin Ramadan, a close associate of President Saddam Husayn, commanded the People's Army, which was responsible for internal security. The command of such a large military establishment gave Ramadan so much power, however, that some foreign observers speculated that the primary function of his second in command was to keep him from using the People's Army as a personal power base.
People's Army members were recruited from among both women and men (who had completed their regular army service) eighteen years of age and older. It was unclear whether or not Baath Party membership was a prerequisite--especially after 1981, when the numerical strength of the People's Army ballooned--but, clearly, party indoctrination was at least as important as military training. Members usually underwent a two-month annual training period, and they were paid from party funds. Although the extent of their training was unknown in early 1988, all recruits were instructed in the use of a rifle. Graduates were responsible for guarding government buildings and installations, and they were concentrated around sensitive centers in major towns. Militia members possessed some sophisticated arms, and it was possible that disgruntled officers contemplating a challenge to Saddam Husayn could rally the support of a force of such militiamen.
Futuwah (Youth Vanguard) was a paramilitary organization for secondary-school students founded by the Baath Party in 1975. Boys and girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen could join Futuwah and receive training in light arms, in the use of grenades, and in civil defense work. By early 1988, several thousand Iraqi youth had volunteered for Futuwah training, and they had been organized into youth platoons. Unverified reports claimed that some People's Army units and Futuwah units were dispatched to the war front for short periods of time in 1983 and 1985. Visitors to Baghdad in the 1980s, however, reported that most civil defense activities in the capital were performed by young People's Army members.
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