About 2,000 Iraqi refugees streamed into Turkey in 24 hours, the semi-official Anatolia news agency reported yesterday, the largest group of arrivals in such a period since fighting started between Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq and Iraqi soldiers after the end of the Gulf war.

Sahabettin Karput, the governor of southeast Hakkari province, next to Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, said that the refugees were of Turkish origin, Anatolia reported. Mr. Karput said the Iraqi refugees were initially sheltered in a tent city along the border and would be transferred to refugee camps after medical examinations. The latest arrivals brought to 3,000 the number of refugees since Thursday, he said.

Iraqi government forces led by three of Saddam’s closest associates last night reported big successes in a lightning offensive to smash the Kurdish. Izzat Ibrahim, Saddam’s number two and deputy commander of the Iraqi armed forces, announced the capture of Irbil and Dahuk, a smaller town used by Kurdish leaders to direct their revolt.

At the same time Iraqi officials took foreign reporters to the oil city of Kirkuk, until Thursday the Kurds’ biggest prize. “We toured enough of the town today to be able to say with some confidence that the government’s forces now control it again,” Edward Stourton of Britain’s Independent Television News, reported last night.

President Bush is widely seen as unwilling to intervene in the fighting inside Iraq for fear of going beyond the United Nations resolutions agreed last year after rounds of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, and for fear of igniting a controversy among Americans about his promise that the Gulf war would be “no Vietnam”.

The White House succeeded in winning the initially reluctant support of the American public for a war against Saddam by portraying the allied response as a moral reaction to a territorial dispute. Joining the Kurds or the Iranian-backed Shias, however, would open the Bush administration to criticism that it was putting American lives at risk for a philosophy or a style of government, as Washington had done during the war against communism in Vietnam.

Administration officials were noticeably silent at the weekend about American policy toward the fighting in the north and south of Iraq. As is common when the White House wishes to keep a low profile on an issue, none of Mr. Bush’s military advisers appeared on yesterday’s current affairs talk shows.

Leading American newspapers have added to the debate by publishing front-page accounts of the atrocities committed by Saddam’s Republican Guard on civilians, including the town of Samawah, about a mile from the area under allied control. The Washington Post yesterday quoted American troops as being frustrated by having to stand idle as enemy soldiers attacked women and children later brought to an American observation post for medical treatment.

“It’s very hard sitting here, not being able to do what we can,” Army Lieutenant Thomas Isom, aged 26, told the Post. “We have shown more discipline in the last four days than in the whole war. If they asked for volunteers, there is not a man here who would not go north to finish the job.” Despite similar reports in past days, the American public so far has shown little sign of support for the intervention of American forces as families celebrate the homecoming of relatives.

Democratic members of Congress, who have been trying to refurbish their reputations since a majority vote against Mr. Bush’s Gulf policy in January, are silent as they try to refocus attention on domestic issues, including education and crime. But the Bush administration has come under criticism from commentators to the right for leaving Saddam in power and from those on the left for leaving a fermenting mess inside Iraq without helping the insurgents in their fight against government troops.

Middle East analysts in Washington say that the Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq may be the country’s last chance to overthrow Saddam and the Baath party.

Unlike the Shias, the Kurds have widespread, recent experience of rebellion against Baghdad, they are far better organized and more united, and their mountains are ideal for sustained guerrilla warfare. Even if they lose their big cities to the Iraqi troops, Saddam’s weakened army would appear to have little chance of defeating the Kurds this time, and the rebellion is expected to prove an efficient war of attrition, eventually forcing the collapse of Baathist rule at the center.

The attitude of the outside world, particularly Washington, to the Iraqi civil war may therefore affect the length of the country’s ordeal, not its eventual outcome.

David Howell, the Conservative chairman of the House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs, yesterday demanded a course of action on the part of the allies that verged on direct military intervention in Iraq.

In an interview with the BBC World Service, he urged that, apart from humanitarian aid, diplomatic recognition be extended to the Kurdish and Shia rebels in Iraq and that special forces be instructed to train their fighters. He also wants the United Nations to pass an emergency resolution to uphold the human rights of the various minority groups in Iraq.

Thousands of Iraqis have begun fleeing northern areas of the country after fierce government counter-attacks against rebel-held areas which left hundreds dead and wounded and caused panic among large sectors of the population.

Many of those escaping are now trying to make their way across the Tigris River into Syria where a single refugee camp, which during the Gulf war housed fewer than 40 Iraqi refugees, now has more than 1,000 living in it, with the numbers growing daily.

Some of those who escaped the counter-attacks earlier this week yesterday described the situation in rebel areas of northern Iraq, where government artillery and helicopters have begun stepping up random attacks on civilian areas seized earlier by Kurdish rebels. The refugees were speaking to a group of three reporters allowed into the camp by the Damascus authorities.

Daoud, a house painter aged 26, who arrived here with his wife and small child, said: “The latest bombardment began at 5am on Tuesday morning and that was when I decided to leave. Life was no longer supportable for my family. Missiles fell on the next-door house to ours and in many other places nearby.” In common with all the refugees, he refused to give his second name for fear of reprisals against family members.

Like many of the Iraqis arriving at al-Hawl, five miles from the Iraqi border, at the rate now of more than 100 a day, Daoud is a Christian whose area in the “liberated” town of Dahok had been hit regularly by long-range Iraqi artillery and helicopter gun-ships. The town has a population of about 150,000 and is in an area where the government has been stepping up its resistance to the rebels.

“The refugees who are arriving here are exhausted, shattered and terrified by what they have seen,” said Abdullah Arrai, the camp administrator. “Now that the situation in the north is worsening, they are coming in ever greater numbers. Many are also trying to flee to Turkey and Iran where the route is more mountainous and the journey therefore safer.”

Many refugees spoke of the fear of mass reprisals against ordinary civilians if the pro-Saddam forces were to regain the upper hand in the north. “We were afraid that there would be killing everywhere if the government began to come back against the organizers of the uprising or those who had lived with it,” said Yoram, a student teacher who also fled after Tuesday’s bombardment of Dahok.

According to the refugees, the rebels have control of all towns in the north with the exception of Mosul. But they are now facing a determined government counter-attack.

“On Monday, I watched from the window as two government helicopters attacked Dahok. I saw one of them shot down from the ground, but the other was firing missiles. It was very frightening,” the manager of a Christian cultural center said. He had crossed the Tigris in a small canoe to Syria.

The sudden arrival of Iraqi refugees in Syria is seen as proof among the mass of claims and counter-claims of the difficulties now facing the anti-Saddam rebels in the north in the face of Iraq’s heavy weaponry.

The picture painted yesterday by the refugees, none of them members of the Iraqi resistance, although all claiming to be sympathetic to it, left a less rosy view of life in northern Iraq than that normally given by more partisan opposition spokesmen and Kurdish figures directly involved in the fighting.

The refugees praised the rebels for releasing food and for trying to look after the tens of thousands of deserters, but said that supplies were short and were becoming more difficult to obtain. There was also no water or electricity in many areas.

“I could not imagine remaining another day,” said Fuad, a blacksmith.

Kurdish rebels claimed yesterday that they had captured Kirkuk, the oil city in northern Iraq, as government forces shelled the outskirts with napalm and phosphorus bombs and continued the bloody repression of the uprising in the south.

The Kurdish insurgents claimed control of a wide belt of Kurdistan, including Arbil and Sulaymaniya. They also gave a warning that if Iraqi forces used chemical weapons or fired Scud missiles at the Kurdish forces, they would retaliate by blowing up the Dhakan dam, on a tributary of the river Tigris, and the Darbandi Khan dam on the Diyala river.

They claimed this would unleash floodwaters that would devastate Baghdad, 145 miles south.

Syrian radio said a number of President Saddam Hussein’s relatives were killed in Tikrit, his home town, while the Iraqi government claimed it was winning the battle in the southern cities of Najaf, Karbala, Hilla, Amara and in the Dhi Qar province.

Iraq announced a national referendum on a new constitution, promised by Saddam.

Saadi Mahdi Saleh, the Speaker of parliament, told a pro-government Kurdish newspaper that the referendum would take place soon, and said it would be accompanied by a thorough shake-up of the Iraqi government.

The government media claimed that Shia rebels were being driven from southern cities but “mobs of saboteurs” were causing wide devastation. Papers appealed for support for Saddam and insurgents were accused of looting shops, destroying markets and defiling holy places.

Iran stepped up its demands for the overthrow of Saddam. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the spiritual leader, called for an Islamic government in Iraq to replace the Baathists, and Iranian parliamentarians urged the Iraqi army to stop the killing and join the insurgents. Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign minister, told a visiting Italian diplomat that international organizations should support the revolt. Tehran radio said between 12,000 and 16,000 people were reported killed on the road between Najaf and Karbala.

Iraqi refugees continued streaming into territory occupied by American forces in the south and said thousands of bodies were still lying in the streets of Basra, which has been shelled by government tanks and artillery for almost three weeks. Some said as many as 5,000 had been killed. Republican Guards were said to be conducting house-to-house searches, and resistance fighters were outnumbered. But the insurgents still controlled parts of the city.

The Kurdish rebels claimed in broadcasts from inside Iraq that their forces were driving Iraqi troops out of key installations in the north and said rioting had now spread to Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city of one million people. Security forces had rounded up 20,000 males in Mosul, where Kurdish, Arab and Christian citizens had taken to the streets. The hostages were being used as human shields against demonstrators, the Kurds said.

Saddam’s enemies predict his downfall within a month, and leaders of Iraq’s neighbors have told Washington that he could not survive to the end of the year.

Much depends on whether the Republican Guard remains loyal and the rate of defections. Hassan al-Naqib, a former Iraqi general who has joined the rebels, said tens of thousands of soldiers had defected. “Saddam’s days are numbered. He will be removed very shortly,” he said. Kurdish leaders said 100,000 troops had so far surrendered in Kurdistan alone.

In Kuwait, where more than 500 oil wells are still ablaze, officials say the country may now be able to resume oil exports by the end of the year.

All 156 people, including 61 children, who arrived at Gatwick airport on a charter flight from Damascus without any identification or entry documents, were last night seeking political asylum in Britain.

Immigration officials spent yesterday interviewing the families and about 37 single men in an airport lounge, trying to ascertain their origins, while the Egyptian private airline, fined Pounds 1,000 per passenger for flying them in, began to investigate how they came to board the plane.

The Home Office said last night that 128 of the passengers claimed to be Iraqi Kurds and 28 Iraqi nationals.

All 156 had been granted temporary admission while claims for asylum were considered. They had all gone to stay at agreed addresses, mainly with friends and relatives. Their claims were likely to take “some months” to be processed.

“It remains the government’s policy that undocumented and irregular arrivals of this nature fall to be discouraged,” a spokesman said.

The Home Office said: “Under the United Nations rules we have to be satisfied they have a well-founded fear of persecution should they return. We also have to be satisfied they are who they say they are, which is proving difficult.”

Meals and bedding were provided for the group in an airport lounge after they landed at 7.40pm on Tuesday. “There is a certain amount of chaos and bedlam, but our officials are working with interpreters to find out who they are,” a spokesman said. Helpers from the Red Cross and Travelcare provided toys and a television for the children.

Airport authorities were alerted half an hour before the ZAS Airline of Egypt McDonnell Douglas MD83 arrived that there were doubts over the nationality of the passengers. They were originally thought to be Europeans fleeing troubles in the Gulf. The aircraft was directed to a gate where airport staff could screen passengers before going through the usual controls and all were found to lack necessary documents.

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George Short, UK director of ZAS, said the airline was considering an appeal against the notice of the Pounds 156,000 fine under the Air Carriers Liability Act 1987 for bringing in passengers without the necessary documents.

“We are very angry,” he said. “We became suspicious when we could not get a passenger list with the names and nationalities of those on the flight. We alerted the authorities of our suspicions before the plane arrived.”

The aircraft was chartered last Friday through the UK office of the Egyptian airline by a United States company, Air Routing, based in Texas. Mr. Short said that he was told the passengers were all Europeans who had ended up in Damascus after fleeing various parts of the Middle East.

“We asked for a full passenger list, as we have no representative in Damascus and we need it to give to immigration,” he said. “They kept promising one and assured us they were all Europeans who did not need visas.

“The flight was paid for within the contract time, but there was still no passenger list. We tried to raise the aircraft, but were unsuccessful and decided something must have gone awry. Documents were given to cabin staff but the passenger list was not among them.”

Airport authorities at Damascus have since told ZAS that those on the flight produced documents that would allow them to enter the UK.

“We have certainly not made any money out of it. We believed we were helping Europeans wishing to return home. They are all very wealthy looking, Gucci shoes and everything,” Mr. Short said.

The pilot, Captain Ali Mohamed Amin, aged 40, who has been with the airline for four years, said he was not suspicious because he thought the passengers could have held British nationality. It was not until the plane had landed that immigration officials told him that they were not.

“They found some of these people had destroyed their passports and tried to get rid of them in the toilets,” he said.

The eight crew and cabin staff of flight ZAS 115 helped airport authorities deal with the passengers after they arrived. A truck was parked behind the plane to prevent it leaving, but was moved yesterday and the airline was told that they could leave.

Mr. Short said: “We have no plans to leave. Ours is the final responsibility for the passengers and we are staying here in case we have to take any back.”

The aircraft, which left from Cairo, was due to refuel in the Egyptian capital en route from Damascus to Gatwick, but eventually made the journey non-stop at the request of the charterer’s representative in Damascus.

Passengers told Home Office officials that they paid between $1,500 (Pounds 800) and $2,000 for a seat. ZAS charged the charterers $65,000.

Hundreds of refugees are being dumped without warning on house-starved councils, the Association of London Authorities said yesterday. Margaret Hodge, chairman of the association, said the flood of refugees into Britain this week was placing enormous pressure on many inner-city boroughs, particularly Haringey and Hackney.

This week 250 Rumanians, 150 Iraqis and 70 Turkish Kurds arrived in Britain seeking refuge, in addition to 150 Eritrean children.