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Crumbling at the Edges

The redeployment of Iraqi army units strengthens fears that Saddam Hussein is planning to fight the Americans with oil.
By Julie Flint

Hours before the expiry of America's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi regular army has reportedly withdrawn from the strategic oil city of Kirkuk, strengthening fears that the Iraqi president will set fire to Iraq's oil wells to prevent them falling into the hands of the Anglo-American forces that are seeking to remove him from power.


Qosrat Rassoul, commander of the Kurdish forces in the "liberated" area of northern Iraq, said regular army units had moved out of Kirkuk together with all their tanks and were travelling south towards Tikrit, Saddam's home town.


Speaking by telephone from northern Iraq, Rassoul said the Arab population of Kirkuk had also been ordered to leave the city, just outside the Kurds' "safe haven". He said Gen. Izzat Ibrahim el-Douri - the commander who crushed the popular uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, currently in charge of the war's northern sector - had remained in Kirkuk with units of Iraq's elite Republican Guard.


Rassoul speculated that el-Douri was under orders to set fire to the oil wells at the first sign of, or even in advance of, an attempt to seize control of Kirkuk.


Earlier in the day, Kurdish officials said a "significant number" of Iraqi soldiers and officers from Kirkuk and Mosul had surrendered to Kurdish forces. As the government sought to quell rumours that Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz had left the country, airing an undated clip of a meeting between Aziz and the president, usually reliable sources suggested that the mayor of Kirkuk had also defected to the Kurdish area.


In southern Iraq, close to the Kuwaiti front, Iraqis defied a government curfew as night fell and left their homes for fear of being trapped in an unprecedented aerial bombardment whose first target is the capture and control of Iraq's main population centres.


With most international phone links between Iraq and the outside world shutting down - at the instigation of Baghdad, according to exiles - information about developments inside Iraq on the presumed eve of the Anglo-American war was scarce. But reports from Iraqi Shias on the border quoted civilians leaving Basra and other major cities as saying that Iraqi troops opened fire on people who ignored the curfew near the Kuwaiti border.


"Iraqis in the south are expecting a terrible bombardment tonight and are refusing to stay in their homes," said Sayyed Abdul Magid al-Khoei, a Shia cleric in London, who spoke to people from the border area by telephone before lines fell. "People arriving at the border are saying that the army used artillery against civilians in Um Alsewich," which is south of Basra.


Twelve years ago, after the Allied war to liberate Kuwait, southerners rose up against Saddam's regime in cities like Basra and turned their wrath on officials and symbols of the ruling Ba'ath party. But Saddam reasserted his authority with ground troops and gunships. To prevent another popular uprising as American forces now target Saddam himself, the Iraqi president has put in charge of the southern sector the man with the most fearsome reputation in his regime - Ali Hassan al-Magid, nicknamed "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988.


Before night fell, US planes arrived in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and huge convoys moved across the Kuwaiti desert towards southern Iraq. There were indications that the regime was crumbling at the edges ahead of President Bush's 0100 GMT deadline for Saddam and his two sons to leave Iraq or be overthrown by force.


Reports from southern Iraq before telephone communications were cut said government employees were refusing to turn up for work and even checkpoints were left unmanned. In the city of Nasiriya, a donkey wandered through the streets spray-painted with the words: "1,000 Americans, but not one Tikriti" - a reference to Saddam Hussein's own tribe.


Local people said it was a sign of the weakness of the regime that the animal was not killed at once. Another sign was that they dared speak of the donkey, and the insult to Saddam Hussein, over international telephone lines that are usually closely monitored.


Julie Flint, a long-time correspondent from the Middle East and a former IWPR trustee, is coordinating editor of the Iraqi Crisis Report.