Bold talk means Saddam is losing, News editorial, A22.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein promised Saturday to allow multiparty democracy for the first time in his 12-year-old regime, apparently bowing to popular uprisings unleashed by the Persian Gulf war.In his first nationally televised address since losing the war, Saddam also said his government had crushed a rebellion by Shiite Muslims in the south and would soon defeat Kurdish rebels in the north.

"With God's help, we have wiped out the sedition in the southern cities, and we are capable with the help of the people to uproot the remnants of treason and sabotage," Saddam said.

However, rebel sources outside Iraq maintained that fierce fighting was continuing, and Saddam's promises of political reform were greeted with skepticism in the West.

President Bush said at a news conference in Bermuda after his meeting with British Prime Minister John Major that he could not envision normal relations with Iraq under Saddam because "his credibility is zilch, zero, zed."

"If he's proclaiming Iraq will be a democratic nation, fine," Bush said. But then he added: "The proof of that pudding is in the eating."

In Damascus, the capital of Syria, Kurdish rebel leader Jalal Talabani said Saddam's speech was an attempt to mislead Iraqis.

"He's trying to give them and the world the impression that he is in full control in the south and the north when he is not," Talabani said.

"If he really believes in democracy let him step down and let the people choose their leaders," he added.

Previous promises by Saddam to open up his government have gone unfulfilled.

Without mentioning it by name, Saddam accused Iran of encouraging the southern rebellion. Tehran has long sheltered dissident Iraqi Shiite groups, but it has denied any part in the insurrection.

"I feel bitter that some of our neighbors with whom we have been trying to establish peace have made their territory a springboard for treachery against Iraq," Saddam said in a reference to his 1980-1988 war with Iran.

Dressed in a military uniform and reading from a text, Saddam called the rebels "stooges and agents of foreign enemies" and said the Kurds were fighting to serve their own interests and those of Israel.

He spoke for a little more than an hour.

He said his country was faced with rebellion while it was still "bleeding from the consequences of the vicious aggression committed by 30 countries," a reference to the U.S.-led allied forces that drove Iraq out of Kuwait.

The twin rebellions began soon after Bush declared on Feb. 27 that Kuwait was liberated, Iraq's army was defeated and that all United States and coalition forces would suspend offensive combat operations.

Saddam said the Iraqi government would move into a "new political era" and added that a new constitution will be offered for discussion and debate before it is endorsed in a general referendum.

A new parliament would be elected, he added.

Saddam did not give any timetable for forming the new Cabinet, holding elections or drafting the new constitution. Similar pledges made last year before Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2 were not carried out.

He also renewed his call for resolving all Middle East conflicts, and said the Palestinian issue ranked first. He reiterated Iraqi support for Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.