REBELS fighting to topple Saddam Hussein reported fierce battles for Iraq's Shiite Muslim holy cities of Najaf and Karbala and accused government troops of using gas and napalm in an attempt to crush their revolt. Iraq's official news agency INA, dismissed the unrest as the actions of "saboteurs" and mercenaries and said First Deputy Prime Minister Taha Yassin Ramadan visited Najaf Sunday.
"The masses whom he met expressed pride and loyalty toward the leadership of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for terminating the sedition," INA said, conveying an impression of a return to normal.
But United States Secretary of State James Baker III said after a Middle East tour that many officials in the region did not think Saddam would still be in power in eight months.
Revolts against Saddam broke out in the mainly Shiite south and the Kurdish north after the US and its allies routed his occupation army in Kuwait.
Opposition leaders outside Iraq dismissed Saddam's assertion that his forces had crushed the revolt in the south. The rebels also said they controlled up to 95 percent of the Kurdish north.
Bayan Jabr of the Tehran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) said rebel forces were less than 60 miles from the capital.
"Our forces are now advancing towards Baghdad from Hilla [to the south]," he said.
An Iraqi rebel radio station, The Voice of Free Iraq, warned Saddam in a broadcast that rebels would march on Baghdad. "A merciless war is coming to you together with a revolution that does not calm down and a march that does not stop except in Baghdad," it said in an Arabic commentary monitored by the British Broadcasting Corp.
CIRI accused Iraqi troops of using mustard gas in the cities of Najaf, Amara, and Basra and quoted reports from Karbala as saying "suffocating gas" was used there against the rebels.
Shiite Iran, which appears poised to renew diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, showed increasing signs of impatience with the attempts by Saddam loyalists to crush the revolt.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme spiritual leader, Monday denounced "the violation and insult against the holy shrines in Najaf and holy Karbala" and "the massacre of the Muslim and defenseless people of Iraq."
Washington has said it will not intervene in the unrest but has warned Iraq not to use planes and helicopters to put down the revolt.
Mr. Baker said Washington, which has not signed a permanent Gulf War cease-fire, had turned down a request from Iraq that it be allowed to move its military aircraft around inside Iraq.