Troops loyal to Hussein reportedly battle rebels Pentagon officials confirm violence in southern cities WAR IN THE GULF

March 05, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

AMMAN, Jordan -- Insurgents seeking Saddam Hussein's downfall battled Iraqi troops loyal to their leader yesterday in at least seven towns and cities in southeastern Iraq, according to reports reaching three Middle Eastern capitals.

Several of the reports described scenes of chaos and fierce fighting between Iraq's elite Republican Guard and Shiite Muslims in the southern port of Basra, a strategic oil city on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway.

They also said President Hussein's eldest son, Udai, 28, was killed in the battles for Basra.

None of the reports could be independently confirmed. Many of the sources were Shiite Muslims, including exiled Iraqi rebel leaders, who have long sought to topple Mr. Hussein, a secular Sunni Muslim.

However, U.S. officials in Washington said yesterday that military reconnaissance indicated violence had occurred in at least six Iraqi cities, including Basra and the holy city of An Najaf.

Navy Capt. Dave Herrington, deputy director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. officials had detected widespread fires in some of the cities.

Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, the Joint Chiefs' director of operations, said there were indications that Republican Guards were battling some units of the regular Iraqi army.

"The situation in Basra is confused, but there is some conflict going on there," General Kelly said. "We see, for example, T-55 tanks, and that reads Iraqi army; we see T-72 tanks, and that reads Republican Guards. And we're not sure they're both on the same side right now."

"We've seen buildings, structures, perhaps some government buildings, that are on fire in some of those cities," Captain Herrington said. "We've also seen military checkpoints at strategic intersections . . . so we assessed from that that there is some kind of very stringent control going on with parts of the city."

Various reports said that, in addition to Basra and An Najaf, unrest had been detected in Amara, Samawa, An Nasiriya, Ad Diwaniya and Kut, all in southern Iraq, the Shiite Muslim heartland of the country, where Shiites represent a poor, disenfranchised majority.

In addition, reports from Syria said Kurdish guerrillas had seized control of the city of Sulaimaniya, about 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, also near the Iranian border. The Kurds for years have sought an independent homeland -- Kurdistan -- in territory now controlled by Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

There was no confirmation, nor even a mention, of unrest by the Iraqi media. However, Baghdad radio quoted the deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council as issuing appeals for loyalty to officials from two eastern provinces.

"Fairness, honor and manliness require us as Iraqis to express our loyalty to and deep belief in this great glory and deep-rooted tradition, and in its symbol [President Hussein] -- the leader of the march," Izzat Ibrahim was quoted as telling governors and other officials from the provinces of Maysan and Wasit.

[Baghdad radio also gave the regime's first strong hint of trouble in the ranks of its armed forces yesterday, announcing an unprecedented decree granting blanket amnesty to all army deserters, draft dodgers and soldiers who are absent without leave, the Los Angeles Times reported.

[In issuing the new edict, which ordered all deserters to return to their units within seven days, Mr. Hussein's ruling Revolutionary Command Council waived one of Iraq's most consistently enforced laws, requiring that all draft-dodgers and deserters be executed on the spot.]

Together the provinces are home to at least 1 million of the 17 million people of Iraq. Amara is the capital of Maysan, and Kut is the capital of Wasit, both sites of unrest.

Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that at least five explosions rocked Basra at midday and could be heard 25 miles away in the Iranian city of Khorramshahr.

IRNA also reported that refugees arriving from Iraq said "they saw Iraqi soldiers returning from Kuwait hand over their arms to people and join them in anti-Saddam demonstrations. They said only the Republican Guards were backing the Iraqi president."

In Tehran, which has given sanctuary to anti-Hussein rebels, dissident leader Sheik Mohammed Baker al-Hakim described the unrest as part of a grass-roots revolt and a jihad, or holy war.

Mr. al-Hakim, a cleric and head of the Tehran-based Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SAIRI, appealed for international intervention.

IRNA based its report of the killing of Mr. Hussein's son Udai on testimony it said it received from witnesses who had fled the embattled port city.

Udai Hussein was estranged from his father for a time, but since the start of the gulf crisis has been hailed as a loyal son who took up arms to defend his nation.

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