Rebels claim successes against Iraqi loyalists WAR IN THE GULF


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Trying to overcome rivalries and differing goals, representatives of Iraqi opposition groups met yesterday in Beirut, Lebanon, as rebels attempting to overthrow Saddam Hussein claimed successes against government forces.

Reports from Iran and Iraqi opposition figures offered a picture of a country torn by a civil war being fought on at least two fronts, putting Iraq in danger of disintegrating into the separate ethnic and religious enclaves that Mr. Hussein has held together with brute force.

Kurdish guerrillas claimed to be nearing the capture of a regional capital in northern Iraq while Shiite Muslims in the south reported more fighting in Karbala, an important religious site.

Clashes were also said to be taking place in Saddam City, a vast, predominately Shiite Muslim suburb of Baghdad. Refugees cited by news agencies said government troops placed parts of Saddam City under curfew and were firing at civilians there and in other parts of the Baghdad area.

Events there remain almost impossible to verify since Iraq continued to be closed to foreign journalists. Rebels maintain they are having success after success, especially in the oil-rich north, while Iraq's official media has given only indirect acknowledgment that fighting is even taking place.

The turmoil could affect the U.S.-led coalition if Iraq's central government is weakened to the point of being unable to sign a formal cease-fire or to fulfill its terms. Without a formal agreement, the U.S. military command has said it will not withdraw its occupation forces in southern Iraq.

Iraq sought to promise the United States yesterday that government forces would not use chemical weapons, a pledge intended to prevent coalition forces from intervening on the side of the rebels.

Iraq's United Nations mission made the promise in a statement issued in reaction to news reports that the United States had warned it would intervene with air strikes if chemical weapons were used.

"The government of Iraq categorically denies recent allegations implying that the Iraqi government has used or intended to use chemical weapons inside Iraq," the statement said.

Western governments say Iraq used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in the Iraqi village of Halabja in the closing stages of the Iran-Iraq war, killing 5,000 civilians.

Mr. Hussein has been challenged repeatedly by Kurdish rebellions, but Kurdish opposition was ruthlessly supressed. Shiites account for about 60 percent of Iraq's 17 million people but have been systematically excluded from power in favor of Mr. Hussein's fellow Sunni Muslims.

More than 300 delegates attended the meeting in Beirut. Gathering at a hotel, the delegates represented 23 opposition groups, characterized by intense rivalries and a history of ineffectiveness.

Various groups have envisioned radically different governments for Iraq. Delegates attending the conference include Shiite fundamentalists, Kurds who have sought an independent Kurdish state, Iraqi Communists, former military officers and exiled dissidents from Iraq's ruling Baath Party.

Spokesmen insisted the groups were united in a desire for a democratic government. Jala Talabani, head of the National Kurdish Union, said the dissidents "agreed to form a cabinet of all opposition members after toppling Saddam Hussein."

Iraq's government condemned the opposition groups as agents for the United States, Britain and Israel. Ignoring Mr. Hussein's ruthless suppression of dissent, al-Thawra, the Baath Party newspaper, called the dissidents cowards for living outside Iraq and accused them of plotting to partition the country.

In the latest reports of fighting, Shiites claimed government forces used tanks and artillery to shell Karbala, killing or 500 people. Rebels were said to be sheltering themselves in mosques that are among the Shiites' holiest sites.

A Shiite opposition figure in Iran said artillery caused heavy damage but did not indicate if fighting was continuing. "We hope that this campaign will fail," said Taqi al-Mudarresi, head of the Islamic Action Organization. "But the number of victims will be high."

Kurdish groups meanwhile offered conflicting statements about their efforts to capture control of the city of Kirkuk, one of the major cities in the oil-producing north. Iran's official news agency quoted a Kurdish spokesman as saying Kirkuk "is on the brink of falling" while a second spokesman said Kurdish forces were still several miles from the city.

Iran reported a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as saying that guerrillas had captured 80 percent of Erbil province and 60 percent of Kirkuk province. Kurdish leaders claim they have controlled the city of Suleimaniyah and the surrounding area since Saturday.

Rebels report capturing large amounts of military including helicopters, and being joined by tens of thousands of defecting soldiers and militiamen.

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