WASHINGTON -- Military forces loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein have lost control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk and have only a "tenuous" grip on key areas in southern Iraq where intense fighting by Shiite Muslim insurgents continues, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Officials at the Pentagon and State Department described the situation as fluid, citing evidence that Iraq's elite Republican Guards were moving northward to retake strongholds now held by Kurdish rebels. But that repositioning could weaken the regime's efforts to crush the rebellion in the south, U.S. officials said.
In the northern town of Zakho, a top Kurdish leader made a triumphant return to rebel-held Iraqi territory, declaring that "the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan has been liberated." Jalal Talabani, who was greeted by more than 10,000 cheering supporters, then began meetings with other opposition leaders to discuss an interim government to topple Mr. Hussein.
"We will continue the struggle until we defeat the regime of oppression in Baghdad and liberate the whole of Iraq," he told the crowd gathered in the town's main square.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi army continued to fly combat helicopters against insurgents in the north and south despite three direct warnings issued recently by senior U.S. military officers that such flights would be considered a threat to U.S. and allied forces, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said.
The number of flights had decreased in recent days, apparently due to bad weather, he said.
But Mr. Williams and other officials suggested that Iraq could still expect to fly more helicopter assault missions without U.S. military interference, provided the flights were not part of a direct attack on allied forces.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater even appeared to back off earlier administration warnings, including one by President Bush last week, about flying combat helicopters.
Use of the aircraft to quell the nationwide civil war was "not covered by the terms of the cease-fire" reached by Iraqi and allied commanders, Mr. Fitzwater said. The issue "was a side oral discussion, nothing in writing. We don't intend to involve ourselves in the internal conflict in Iraq.
believe Iraq should remain a single country, that it is good for the stability of the region that it maintain its territorial integrity, but we do not intend to involve ourselves in the internal power struggles within the country."
In southern Iraq, the fighting has diminished slightly as the Iraqi military tried to consolidate its control by moving troops into smaller villages after having wrested larger cities and towns from rebel Shiite Muslims, U.S. officials said.
"But the situation is still fluid because as the government forces leave one area, then the rebel activity frequently flares up again," Mr. Williams said.
Since Sunday, intense fighting broke out in the towns of Suq ash Shuyukh, west of Basra on the Euphrates River, and Samawa, southeast of An Najaf on the river, he said.
Although Iraqi troops "have their hands full in southern Iraq," they are likely to prevail because "they are the ones with the forces, they have the command and control, they control all the logistics elements, they are the ones that can most easily get around, talk to each other . . . and they're the best organized," Mr. Williams said.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler observed that the Iraqi government's hold in the south remained "tenuous," partly because of a decision to shift forces, including elements of the Republican Guard, elsewhere "as the situation in the Kurdish north deteriorated."
In the north, Kurdish rebels had seized control of Kirkuk, an oil center about 150 miles north of Baghdad, but there were reports of heavy fighting in the area and evidence that Iraqi forces were regrouping outside the city, U.S. officials said.