Subsistence is a struggle in the tumult of southern Iraq, and the streets of Basra, the country's second-largest city, are littered with the bodies of 5,000 people slain in the anti-Saddam revolt, refugees say.
"We were eating animal feed before we left," said Sahid Shaban, an Egyptian mechanic who fled Basra on Monday and arrived in allied-controlled territory near Kuwait. "We would grind it up and eat it with sea water."Shaban and other refugees described sections of the southeastern city as open morgues where dogs picked at piles of corpses. They told of helicopters that rebels said came from Iran airlifting supplies to rebel-held areas.
The refugees' stories could not be independently confirmed, but U.S. Army officers whose troops man checkpoints on the edge of allied-controlled Iraqi territory said the details were consistent with many other refugee reports.
Shaban and four other fleeing Egyptians were encountered at one such checkpoint. They included Samir Ibrahim Suleiman, a carpenter, who said that as he left Basra Iraqi troops were pounding the city with tanks and howitzers.
Mosques in rebel-held parts of the city were broadcasting warnings to rebels not to shoot down "white helicopters" that were seen dropping supplies including food and medicine into rebel-held parts of the city, he said.
Loudspeakers at the mosques, powered by electrical generators, were telling people that the helicopters were from Iran, Suleiman said.
Iran has denied it is supplying the rebels, who in southern Iraq belong primarily to the Shiite Muslim sect dominant in Iran.
In Kuwait, the prime minister told visiting U.S. congressmen of a "no-man's land" along the border between Iran and southern Iraq.