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'Mutineers' vow to fight Saddam to the death

An armoured battalion mutinied on the outskirts of Baghdad yesterday and its commander said he would "fight to the death" in a battle between the Dulaimi tribe and Saddam Hussein's government, according to witnesses speaking by telephone to the French news agency, Agence France-Press.

If confirmed, writes Patrick Cockburn, the rebellion will be the most serious uprising against the Iraqi government since the revolt by army units in the south immediately after the Gulf war in 1991. It follows riots in Ramadi, on the Euphrates west of Baghdad, sparked off by the execution in mid-May of General Mohammed Mazlum al-Dulaimi, for "plotting a coup".

The 14 July battalion attacked Baghdad Radio transmitters and a private heliport of President Saddam in the Abu Ghraib area. Led by General Turki Ismail al-Dulaimi, there was a battle involving tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters, according to witnesses contacted by telephone from Amman by AFP. They said an air force general was killed.

Iraqi government special forces have surrounded the rebels, who are demanding the release of all inmates from Abu Ghraib prison, including hundreds of people arrested since the rioting in May. General Dulaimi and his men are inside a control centre for radio transmitters saying they will fight to the death, witnesses are quoted as saying. In Baghdad, officials say the report is too trivial to be worthy of comment.

There is no independent confirmation of the mutiny. Hamid al-Bayati, a leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress based in London, was quoted as saying there was fighting around the radio station. But Ghanim Jawad, the official spokesman of the INC, said the group could not confirm reports of the rebellion. He said he had spoken to his headquarters in northern Iraq and was told Iraqi TV and radio were still on the air.

Other Baghdad sources suggested there had been an incident in the Abu Ghraib area yesterday, but it was over. They said no fighting was going on at present. In Damascus, Iraqi Shia Muslim exiles said units of the Iraqi military were fighting each other until at least midday yesterday. Bayan Jaber, spokesman in Syria and Lebanon for the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said the units had used short-range rockets and missiles.

Whatever the scale of the unrest, it is significant that the Dulaimi tribe is at the centre of it because it has always been loyal to the regime. "It is a major Sunni tribe with members scattered through the army and security service,'' Ghanim Jawad said. Saddam Hussein has always relied upon the Sunni Muslim tribes and clans of the northern Tigris and Euphrates, where his own family comes from.