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`State of alert ordered in Baghdad'

London - Iraqi opposition groups yesterday said a state of alert was in force in Baghdad and they reported government troop movements towards Kurdish rebels in the north and Shia Muslim fighters to the south, writes Michael Sheridan.

Iraq said its army clashed overnight on Sunday with Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. The official Ina news agency quoted an authorised military source as saying "members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan attacked a unit of the 5th division which pushed them back causing several casualties in their ranks."

"We do not rule out the possibility of a continuation of these attacks in coming days. Our troops are in their defensive positions and have not crossed the lines" of the fighers, the military source said. Western officials could not confirm the reports but said the Gulf war allies were monitoring developments in Iraq. A statement from the Iraqi National Congress (INC) said President Saddam Hussein's regime had ordered a state of alert in Baghdad.

The INC said units of the Republican Guard had moved from near President Saddam's home town of Tikrit to near the Kurdish-held "safe haven'' set up under UN protection. Kurdish groups say Iraqi artillery has been shelling towns inside the safe haven.

Western analysts were trying to work out whether President Saddam had embarked on a new strategy of confrontation in the belief that the UN will not ease sanctions on his country at its next review meeting on 13 March. France yesterday opened a "diplomatic office" in Baghdad.