AMMAN, Jordan -- Iraqi opposition groups claimed yesterday that much of Iraq was under rebel control and that Kurdish guerrillas were moving toward Kirkuk, a major oil-producing center in the northern part of Iraq.
"Much of 29 cities and hundreds of towns are out of the hands of the Baathists," said opposition leader Beker Fattah, referring to President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, in an interview with Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency. "This is almost three-fourths of Iraq."
Hoshyar Zebari of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front told the Associated Press that up to 5,000 Iraqi soldiers had defected or surrendered to Kurdish rebels in recent days.
Kirkuk, which Kurdish leaders say "is on the brink" of falling into rebel hands, is a city of 200,000 people about 200 miles north of Baghdad in a region responsible for about half of Iraq's peacetime oil production. The other areas that have reportedly fallen to the rebels are also in the north.
The Associated Press quoted Barham Saleh of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as saying that 50,000 Iraqi soldiers had joined in the rebellion.
"In the north, we're seeing whole See IRAQ, 4A, Col. 4IRAQ, from 1Abattalions coming across to our side," Mr. Saleh said in a telephone interview from London. "Saddam's regime is literally crumbling."
Mr. Saleh said rebel forces had taken the city of Koisanjaq and the towns of Agjeler, Kifri, Bazyn, Shamshamal and Hanger.
"Our men are now within 20 kilometers of the center of Kirkuk city," Mr. Saleh said early yesterday. "They'll be there later today."
Western journalists have been banned from Iraq, and the rebels' claims could not be directly verified by any sources inside Iraq.
Vice President Dan Quayle, appearing on "Face the Nation" on CBS, said there was "almost total chaos" in parts of Iraq and identified the northern part of the country, where the Kurds are concentrated, as the region with the most instability. He said it appeared that Mr. Hussein remained in control in the rest of the country, including the southern part of Iraq where Shiites have been leading the uprisings.
Mr. Quayle said the Bush administration wanted to see Mr. Hussein replaced, but not with a radical Shiite government with ties to Iran. Bush administration officials continue to predict that Mr. Hussein will be overthrown by elements in his own ruling Baath Party rather than by Shiite or Kurdish rebels.
[Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, the deputy director of U.S. military operations, said in an interview yesterday with the New York Times that Iraq's armed forces were "really having big problems. It's not under his (Mr. Hussein's) control. He's reacting to situations rather than controlling situations.
[A Pentagon official who has been monitoring the fighting cautioned that, although the battles seemed to have intensified in recent days, he thought that the Baghdad government was in no immediate danger of being toppled by the insurgents, who are not coordinating their attacks.]
Meanwhile, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani urged Mr. Hussein to make a deal with the rebel groups.
"We are concerned that the situation in Iraq may lead to extensive rebellion and war inside Iraq," Mr. Rafsanjani said in a meeting with the Czechoslovakian foreign minister, Jiri Dienstbier. "It is necessary that the government and all groups inside Iraq cooperate to calm down Iraq's internal situation."
According to Kurdish leaders in Turkey, the Iranian government allowed several thousand Kurdish guerrillas to cross the Iranian border and enter Iraq last week to join the uprising against Mr. Hussein. Salih Haci Huseyin, leader of the Iraqi Kurds in Turkey, said the new arrivals had helped Kurds score victories against the Iraqi army and take control of one major city, Sulaimaniya, and eight towns near the Iranian border.
Mr. Huseyin also said 8,000 Kurdish fighters in Turkey were trying to get permission from the Turkish government to cross its borderinto northern Iraq to join the fighting.
The internal rebellions against the Iraqi regime have apparently spread quickly since allied forces ended a six-week air and ground offensive Feb. 27.
Baghdad Radio accused Washington yesterday of mounting a news media campaign aimed at undermining the country's unity.
The radio said that "dozens of radio stations directed at Iraq and hundreds of newspapers and mercenary journalists" were conducting the campaign aimed at toppling Mr. Hussein.
"As the war against Iraq nears its end and the aggressors start to pull out their defeated troops, the West has mounted a new episode," Radio Baghdad said.
The radio characterized this new "media cold war" chapter as "a feeble joke that cannot even shake a palm tree on the banks of the Tigris River."
Last week, the Iraqi government expelled the few Western journalists who had been allowed to report from Baghdad, a move interpreted by some as an attempt to suppress news of the uprisings.
Iraq's Shiite community makes up about 55 percent of the population. The Kurds, who have been struggling for an autonomous homeland, make up about 20 percent of the country's 17 million people.
The opposition groups called yesterday on the international community to assist the fighting rebels with medical and military assistance.