IN SOUTHERN IRAQ -- Refugees walking south from Basra said yesterday that demonstrations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein were rocking the war-damaged city.
The refugees made up a thin line of misery as they left the city, Iraq's second-largest and its only port, and walked along the desert road toward Kuwait, 30 miles away. Few had possessions other than a bottle of water; some stumbled and seemed about to fall.
They said thousands of people were marching in demonstrations that began yesterday against Mr. Hussein and had clashed with army members still loyal to the Iraqi leader.
[Fundamentalist Muslims from Basra told other reporters staying with allied forces that they had risen against Mr. Hussein and thrown open the gates of the prisons there, according to Reuters. They appealed for help from U.S.-led armies encamped a few miles south of the city.
[The fundamentalists said they were followers of Mohammed Baker al-Hakim, a long-standing opponent of Mr. Hussein. His group, the Tehran-based Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, issued statements in Lebanon claiming control of An Nasiriya, a strategic city on the Euphrates River, of nearby Suq ash Shuyukh, Al Tar, Al Fuhoud and large parts of Al Amarah.
[The Hakim followers told reporters at 2 p.m. (6 a.m. EST) that fighting had been going on for 35 hours in Basra.]
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a U.S. military spokesman, Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, said that Basra was "in disarray and disorganized."
Although the refugees disagreed on the extent of fighting, most agreed that the Iraqi army was divided.
"The military who came back in Basra joined the demonstrations," said Ibrahem Ashad Mohammed, a 28-year-old waiter, who was sitting along the road. "There were signs that said, 'Down with Saddam.' "
The soldiers seemed to offer confirmation that the military was no longer united. One motioned to other soldiers just down the road and said that if he confronted them, he would be killed.
From the outskirts of Basra, a thick column of smoke could be seen yesterday. Iraqi soldiers stopped this reporter from entering the city.
The refugees, many barefoot, said they feared for their lives in Basra. Some were Egyptians who had been working in Iraq but feared retaliation for Egypt's role in the gulf war.
In the hot afternoon sun, they trudged south, begging for rides from the few cars that passed. On both sides of the road sat tanks blackened and twisted, trucks wrecked and abandoned, cars caught by merciless blasts as they had tried to speed north from Kuwait to safety.
Soldiers went about the grim task of checking the wreckage for bodies and explosives. "This is a very, very nasty place," said one British officer, surveying the scene of death.
As they walked south toward Kuwait, the refugees passed Iraqi soldiers walking north from the border. Many of the soldiers also were bedraggled, and some were shoeless. Most would not speak to a reporter.
But others were better equipped. Several Iraqi artillery pieces passed, as did trucks carrying uniformed, armed soldiers.
Iraqi soldiers stopped several cars of journalists driving into Basra at a checkpoint about 25 miles north of the border. The first few cars were allowed through, but then soldiers stopped the others and held a knife to the throat of a French cameraman.
The commander of one tank column, backed by soldiers with automatic rifles, ordered four reporters who remained there to return to Kuwait. The tank column then headed south, apparently to take up positions nearer the border.