Troops moving to crush a Kurdish rebellion shelled the outskirts of this northern provincial capital Saturday, as tens of thousands of frightened civilians fled.
One Kurdish rebel leader said Iraqi government forces were concentrating just north of Mosul, about 50 miles south of Dahuk and the largest city in northern Iraq, and that there were preliminary reports Saturday morning of fighting in that area.
Prime Minister Sadoun Hammadi, meanwhile, said the government is succeeding in putting down rebellions in the north and south. He promised a return to “democratic life” in Iraq.
The official Iraqi News Agency also reported that the ruling Revolutionary Command Council declared an amnesty for soldiers who return to their posts in the north.
Iraqi government newspapers accused the rebels of murder and looting in the northern oil center of Kirkuk, which the government says it recaptured Thursday.
Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who arrived in Dahuk after a tour of the mountainous Kurdish region, urged a crowd of several hundred Kurds to stay and fight any government attack.
But people were streaming out of Dahuk, 35 miles south of the Turkish border, some on foot and others in cars crammed with belongings.
President Saddam Hussein’s forces last week launched a major offensive against the Kurdish rebels, who had captured nearly all their historic homeland in northeastern Iraq following the allied rout of Hussein’s army in Kuwait last month.
The Kurds are loosely allied with Shiite Muslim rebels in southern Iraq, whose own uprising appears to have been largely quelled by government forces.
But a Shiite Muslim rebel leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Taki Modaresi, said Saturday that rebels were in control of the Shiite holy city of Karbala, which the government also claims to control.
In a statement issued in Syria, Modaresi also said that rebels captured the Nakra Salman el-Rahib prison near the Saudi border and freed thousands of political prisoners, many of whom had been tortured.
The official Iranian news agency said a refugee identified as Mohammed Hamdan Saedi told it that 6,000 Iraqi troops had deserted to join the rebels in the southern city of Amara.
The claims of gains by Shiite rebels in southern Iraq could not be independently verified.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that Republican Guard forces--considered the best Iraqi troops and the most loyal to Saddam--were moving north, apparently because the Shiite rebellion in the south now poses less of a threat than the Kurdish uprising.
Hoshyar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said that government forces were concentrating just north of Mosul to guard against any rebel attack.
He also said there were reports Saturday morning of fighting “between our forces and advancing Iraqi troops” north of Mosul near the town of Sheikhan, about 25 miles southeast of Dahuk.
Hammadi, in his first nationally broadcast speech since taking office Tuesday, pledged that his government would begin an era of reconstruction.
“The sectarian sedition is breathing its last after the perpetrators and those standing behind them across the borders were crowned with shame,” said Hammadi, who called the rebels “agents of foreigners.”
“The door is now open for a phase of reconstruction and reform,” he said.
Near Dahuk, intermittent artillery fire could be heard as residents fled, and muffled explosions could be heard as shells hit fields on the edge of the city.
Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said he and another Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, called on allied coalition forces to prevent a “war of genocide against the Kurdish people” by blocking Iraqi use of aircraft, artillery, rockets and other heavy weapons in the civil war.
But White House officials have said the United States will not intervene in the civil war, despite uneasiness at widespread reports of torture and killings by government forces trying to crush the revolt.
Iraqi government newspapers Saturday accused the Kurdish rebels of executing members of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party during their nine-day occupation of Kirkuk, the most important city captured by the rebels.
In other developments Saturday:
* A U.S. reconnaissance plane crashed into the Persian Gulf, but the two crewmen ejected and survived, said the U.S. Central Command in Saudi Arabia. The RF-4C was assigned to the 152nd Tactical Reconnaissance Group at the Air National Guard Base in Reno, Nev.
* An Iranian diplomatic delegation flew into Riyadh to reopen Iran’s embassy and a Saudi Arabian delegation simultaneously traveled to Tehran to do the same, diplomatic sources said. The two nations formally restored diplomatic ties on Tuesday after a three-year break.