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Originally they were said to be drugs gangsters.
President Assad is reportedly opposed to the Shabiha.
"In the 1990s... Mr Assad - with the approval of his father Hafez, the then president - tried to curb its activities."
Syrians by yewco
Basil al-Assad, the current president’s brother, led a campaign against the Shabiha in the early 1990s.
Some of the Shabiha are Sunnis opposed to President Assad.
"Analysts say shabbiha-style militias made up of the Sunni Muslims who represent the majority of the population have also started to emerge in regions like the province of Homs, where Houla is located."
Syrians by Kevin.Donegan
Comments by readers, in the Financial Times:
1. "Last week we were told by the media (including the FT) and Western Governments, that it was artillery fire from tanks and Syrian soldier to blame for the Houla massacre. They cried blue murder.
"The UN investigation then contradicted this.
"Now, western Governments and their media (propaganda) tell us it is the shabbiha, again without proof but with the same absolute certainty."
2. "One Ft 'reporter' is 'reporting' from Abu dhabi and the other is based in Beirut? Why not just leave them in London? Wouldn't it be much easier and cheaper?
"As for the story about pro-government militia dressed in army uniforms? Well that's exactly what 'opposition' thugs would do, wouldn't they? Oh they put on white sports shoes? Wow, that's highly convincing!"