RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- In a challenge to Saddam Hussein's power and prestige, the president of Iran called yesterday for Mr. Hussein to resign and to abandon attempts to crush the rebellion reportedly under way in several cities.
Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani said any attempt by Mr. Hussein and the ruling Baath party to remain in control "will be their last mistake." His warning amounted to an endorsement of the revolt that is reported to be attracting support from Kurds in northern Iraq and Shiite Muslims in the south.
For Mr. Hussein, Mr. Rafsanjani's comments were signs of an Iraqi political gamble gone wrong. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Mr. Hussein sought to lessen his country's isolation by drawing closer to Iran, his former enemy, and counted on Iran to join him against any coalition led by the United States.
Iran officially remained neutral during the fighting to force Iraq from Kuwait. Iran's government called on Iraq to withdraw from the emirate and on the United States and its non-Muslim allies to leave Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Rafsanjani's latest statements indicate that Iran was only waiting for Mr. Hussein to falter. "Saddam is making a mistake while suppressing the people," the Iranian president said in a sermon during regular Friday prayers at Tehran University.
"This is the worst mistake. If the Baathists will not listen to the voice of the people, it will be their last mistake."
His comments were another sign that Iraq's neighbors doubt Mr. Hussein's ability to survive the political turmoil brought about by his country's military defeat. The commander of Saudi Arabia's armed forces, Lt. Gen. Khalid bin Sultan, predicted this week that Mr. Hussein "will never last more than two months."
Conditions in Iraq remain almost impossible to determine from the outside. Opposition groups in exile have said that violence against the government continues in at least half a dozen cities, but Iraq's official news media have either claimed that all is well or have remained silent.
Accounts of conditions in the southern city of Basra differed. U.S. military officers with access to aerial photographs and other intelligence said forces loyal to Mr. Hussein have regained control of the city, but refugees and exile groups said battles continue there.
Baghdad Radio said a Baath official met Wednesday with the mayor of Basra, a report that could be interpreted as meaning either that all was well or that chaos reigned and the party was trying to find a way to reassert control.
Refugees have said that the mayor was killed in the fighting. Baghdad Radio did not identify the mayor by name or say whether the meeting occurred in Basra.
Other developments indicated that Mr. Hussein's government was trying to salvage the remnants of its army and that it apparently was in control of Baghdad:
* Iraq said it was releasing 40 foreign journalists, including at least 11 Americans, into the custody of the Red Cross in Baghdad.
* Baghdad Radio quoted a government spokesman as saying that the Red Cross also would be given two U.S. soldiers captured in Basra, an Army lieutenant and a private.
A Pentagon spokesman said the Army had no knowledge of the two soldiers identified by Iraq. "Right now," he said, "we don't know who they are."
* Iraq's governing Revolutionary Command Council, with atypical leniency, announced that Iraqi army deserters would have an extra week to return to duty. Baghdad Radio attributed the extension to transportation problems, but the extra week appeared to be part of the government's attempt to regain the loyalty of its troops.
Before the beginning of the ground war, captured Iraqi soldiers reported that the forces occupying Kuwait included "execution squads" that had been ordered to shoot would-be deserters.
* Iraq and the U.S. military command announced an agreement on plans for sending home more than 60,000 Iraqi soldiers taken prisoner. Beginning Monday, buses are to take several hundred prisoners-of-war each day from camps in Saudi Arabia to Iraq.
The military command said officials from Iraq and the coalition agreed on the procedures at a six-hour meeting in Riyadh Thursday under the supervision of the Red Cross.