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Rebels Claim to Be Holding Out in 2 Cities : Unrest: Iraq calls reports of uprising in suburbs of Baghdad ‘fabricated, baseless.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Iraqi insurgents Thursday claimed that heavy fighting continued in the north and south of the country, but President Saddam Hussein’s official news agency dismissed reports of rebellion in the suburbs of Baghdad as “fabricated, baseless and completely unfounded.”

The Iraqi News Agency quoted a “responsible source” as saying the reports of fighting near the capital were part of “the aggressive campaign being waged by hostile quarters against Iraq and its steadfast people.”

Only Wednesday, nearly two weeks after the insurgency broke out in the southern port city of Basra, did Hussein’s regime openly concede that the provinces were roiling with rebellion. And that Baghdad Radio broadcast said the government had the insurgents under control.

Fresh claims Thursday by exile opposition groups, which were picked up and relayed by official Iranian media, said insurgents were still holding out against government armored forces in Karbala and Basra, two main cities of the south. They also said that rebels have killed 19 government officials in the Kurdish-populated province of Sulaymaniyah in the north, including a top leader of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party there.

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Another exile report claimed that Hillah, the capital of south-central Babylon province, was under rebel control and that the provincial governor and other top officials had been executed.

None of the new claims could be independently confirmed. Foreign reporters were ousted from the country 10 days ago. But even discounting the exiles’ claims, it is clear that Hussein’s iron hold on the Iraqi populace has been broken in the wake of his army’s collapse in front of the allied offensive that liberated Kuwait late last month.

The army, however, still has superior firepower, and it has been reported using both tanks and artillery to put down rebels armed with rocket launchers and machine guns.

What now has become a battle of claims and counterclaims by Hussein’s regime and the insurgents--with the addition of Iran’s use of radio, news agencies and the press to get out its own version--has produced a picture of chaos and confusion.

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In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday that the U.S. government cannot confirm rebel claims to control a large part of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

“The information available to us shows continued heavy fighting in and around several cities and towns in the Kurdish north since yesterday,” Boucher said. “In addition, there continue to be heavy clashes in the area north of Basra and around the Shia holy cities.

“The situation in the south continues to seesaw as we receive reports of renewed fighting in towns where the government had previously appeared to have suppressed the earlier unrest.”

He said Washington has not changed its reluctance to deal directly with Iraqi opposition leaders despite the apparent success of an opposition unity meeting in Beirut.

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“The leadership of Iraq is for the Iraqi people to determine, and we have no plans or intentions to try to choose alternatives to the present leadership,” he said.

According to the exiles’ reports, descriptions of unrest and instability underplay what is happening in Iraq, which emerged from an eight-year war with Iran in 1988 only to be crushed again in the Persian Gulf conflict and, now, swept by rebellion within its borders.

In the north, where Kurdish guerrillas are pressing out of the mountains to isolate towns and villages, government troops have set fire to two oil wells in the fields around Kirkuk, according to Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency, which attributed the report to the rebel Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The IRNA report did not say why Hussein’s forces would torch the wells. The fields around Kirkuk were producing nearly half the country’s oil before the Gulf crisis began.

The Kurds also charged that Iraqi troops rounded up civilians in Kirkuk and then strafed them from helicopter gunships, “killing a fairly large number.”

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The Kurdish forces said they shot down three government helicopters near the city of Khanaqin, northeast of Baghdad near the Iranian border.

In the south, an official of the Shiite Islamic Labor Organization said in Damascus, rebels were still holding out under artillery fire in Basra and resisting government attacks in the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Karbala. More than half of the Iraqi population is Shiite, the faith of neighboring Iran. Hussein’s political base is the Sunni Muslim heartland north of Baghdad.

The Iranian news agency, quoting refugees, said a large number of Iraqis driven out of Basra by heavy fighting have taken refuge in bunkers from the Iran-Iraq War era in the Majnoon marshes north of the port city.

Tehran Radio, reporting on the uprising in Baghdad, quoted an opposition claim that the brother of Information Minister Latif Jasim has been killed.

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Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this article.


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