Factional fight in Iraq grows, tests Hussein Revolt by Shiites, minorities, army hits more cities WAR IN THE GULF

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- With more cities reportedly in revolt, Iraq faced growing threats yesterday from ethnic minorities, Shiite Muslims and disgruntled elements of its defeated army, all of them battling forces remaining loyal to President Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi government, meanwhile, took steps to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions for a formal cease-fire. It released what it said were all its remaining allied prisoners, repealed its annexation of Kuwait and promised to return looted property.

Firsthand information about the revolt remained sparse, but reports from Iran and from Iraqi dissident groups suggested Iraq was in danger of disintegrating into its component ethnic parts. Shiites and Kurds were said to be fighting troops, while other army units fought each other, at times dueling with tanks.

Iran's official news agency said two Iraqi cities considered holy by Shiite Muslims, Karbala and An Najaf, fell into the hands of rebels fighting to overthrow Mr. Hussein. It also reported that members of the Republican Guard, the army's elite units, had defected to join rebels in the city of Amara, in southeastern Iraq.

While such battles could pose a major threat to Mr. Hussein, there was evidence suggesting that he retained firm control over Baghdad and that he was attempting to reassert authority elsewhere.

U.S. military sources said loyal elements of the army were reorganizing in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where the first disturbances were reported Saturday. Additional security forces were expected to arrive there to try to suppress clashes %J between rival army factions and between the army and civilians.

"I think there's a groundswell of civil unrest, but at the same time the government is getting its arms around it," said an officer in Riyadh. "It may lead to a collision; it may lead to the traditional Iraqi response of submitting to government control."

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler said that loyalist forces "may have restored government control in a few of the affected areas."

Iraq meanwhile announced it had repealed its annexation of Kuwait, one of the remaining actions necessary to comply with requirements set by the U.N. Security Council.

According to Iraq's government news agency, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz conveyed the decision of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council in a letter to the Security Council and to U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

At the United Nations, however, the Kuwaiti envoy said the move was not good enough, saying the annexation had to be rescinded by the same body that originally passed it, Iraq's National Asembly.

Mr. Aziz also said that Iraq had agreed to return Kuwaiti gold, currency and other property taken after the invasion, and he asked the United Nations to advise Iraq on how the property could be delivered in the shortest possible time.

The Security Council linked eventual withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraqi territory to Iraq's releasing prisoners of war, renouncing all claims to Kuwait and agreeing in principle to pay reparations for war damages. Iraq said Sunday that it accepted those terms.

Iraq took another step toward full compliance by organizing a second release of allied POWs in Baghdad. The release also demonstrated that Mr. Hussein's government maintained control of the capital.

Iraq turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross 35 prisoners, including 15 Americans, and said they were the last prisoners being held.

Until high winds and heavy rains forced a delay, the newly released soldiers were to have been flown to Saudi Arabia. The U.S.-led coalition, meanwhile, was to have flown 294 Iraqi soldiers from King Khalid Military City, in northern Saudi Arabia, to Baghdad.

They would have been the first Iraqis released from among the more than 60,000 Iraqi troops who surrendered or were captured during the war. U.S. officers said the exchange of the 294 had been rescheduled for today.

In addition to the 15 Americans,Iraq freed nine Britons, nine Saudis, one Kuwaiti and one Italian. Six other Americans were released Monday, arrived in Bahrain yesterday and taken to the Navy hospital ship Mercy, where they were expected to remain two or three days.

An Air Force physician who accompanied the six to Bahrain said he saw no evidence that they had been seriously mistreated as prisoners. "I'm pleased to report that they are all in good shape and in good spirits," Col. Wynn Mabry said.

Among those brought to the Mercy were Army Spc. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, the only female POW, and Air Force Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun. Colonel Mabry said Lieutenant Zaun, who had appeared on Iraqi television with his face cut and swollen, had probably suffered those injuries when he ejected from his aircraft.

Iraq meanwhile appeared to be suffering the first political side effects of its catastrophic attempt to hold on to Kuwait. If the reports of clashes are true, Mr. Hussein faces his strongest internal challenge to date, and the region is facing the potential for enormous upheaval.

By many accounts, large parts of southern Iraq were no longer under control of the central government or were the scene of street clashes growing in number and intensity.

In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, tank crews fired at each other with machine guns, according to U.S. military sources. Members of the Republican Guard loyal to the government were seeking to return disaffected units to the government's side or to destroy them. U.S. officers said some of the clashes involved hundreds of people.

Clashes that began in Basra have gradually spread north. Opposition figures in Syria and Iran say rebels have won control of An Najaf and Karbala after fighting that took more than a dozen lives. Opposition groups and U.S. officers say violent anti-government demonstrations have taken place in at least a half-dozen other cities.

Southern Iraq is home for most of Iraq's Shiites, a minority faction within the Muslim faith but accounting for about 60 percent of Iraq's 17 million people.

Mr. Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, allowed Shiites to play only a small role in government; he chose most of his advisers from among fellow Sunnis from his hometown, Tikrit. He also sought to suppress Shiite fundamentalism, viewing it as a danger to the ruling Baath Party and its determinedly secular ideology.

The threat of fundamentalism originally came from Iran, Iraq's eastern neighbor. Shiites gained their first significant political power in modern times when the Islamic revolution in Iran brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in 1980. Ayatollah Khomeini lived for many years in An Najaf until being expelled by Mr. Hussein.

Iran became a theocracy, much to the alarm of its neighbors. Iraq responded with harsher suppression of Shiite clerics and by launching the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war.

Exiled Iraqi Shiites now appear to constitute the best-organized opposition to Mr. Hussein, thanks in part to shelter and inspiration from Iran. The person most often cited in recent days as an opposition leader for Iraq is Mohammed Baker al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq -- based in Tehran, Iran's capital.

Clashes also have been reported in northern Iraq, a Kurdish region.

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