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.