Saddam offensive forces Shias out

IRAQI SHIAS are continuing to flee the southern marshes in droves to escape from a summer offensive by Saddam Hussein's army, according to dissident Iraqis in London.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said the Iraqis were escaping to Iran at a rate of 150 a day. According to UNHCR, some 15,000 were waiting to cross the border into a remote part of western Iran. Many are stuck in a kind of no man's land in the border area because the Iranians are said to be reluctant to let in another flood of refugees.

The Iraqi campaign is part of a continuing effort to subdue the people of the marshes, where dissident Shias fled after the insurrection at the end of the Gulf war. Refugees have said they fled heavy mortar fire and artillery bombardment by Iraqi forces.

In the past, Iraqi forces have had great difficulty in penetrating the marshes. But a series of extensive drainage works, and the summer season, have dried out the land and increased the mobility of Iraqi forces.

One of the main Iraqi Shia opposition groups, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (Sciri), said that over the last fortnight, army units had subjected villages in al-Amarah, Nasiriyah and the Basrah marshland to sustained bombardment. Republican Guard units have also been exercising on al-Habbaniyah and al-Rizazah lakes, which are similar to the marshlands. Sciri fears a new offensive is being planned.

Western countries have told Iraq that the UN sanctions regime will not be loosened until Baghdad observes all UN ceasefire resolutions, including 688 which calls on Iraq not to repress its population.