Iraqi rebel forces claimed Saddam Hussein pulled some of his tanks back to Baghdad in an apparent attempt to defend the capital against insurgents, while a published report said U.S. tanks pushed deeper into southern Iraq in a show of force.

The reported weekend tank movements occurred as rebels claimed new gains by Kurdish fighters in northern sections of Iraq and Iraqi officials criticized U.S. conditions for a permanent cease-fire in the Persian Gulf war.President Bush, meanwhile, continued postwar consultations with allied leaders, meeting Sunday night at the White House with Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti for about 21/2 hours.

The Washington Post reported Monday that U.S. Army heavy armored units drove 60 miles deeper into the Euphrates River valley Saturday in an apparent attempt to intimidate the Iraqi forces.

The Post said the 2nd Cavalry pushed north with 125 M1-A1 tanks and an extra artillery brigade to replace the less heavily armed 82nd Airborne Division in a 100-mile sector of southern Iraq.

The repositioning also included the movement of the 1st and 3rd armored division to sectors east of the 2nd Cavalry, almost to the outskirts of the southern Iraqi city of Basra, and the shifting of the 1st Infantry Division to the south, the newspaper said.

A Kurdish opposition group said Monday two Iraqi bombers and five helicopters attacked rebel-held Kirkuk. Many people were killed, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said, appealing for help from the U.S.-led coalition forces.

The United States has warned Iraq against conducting air raids against the rebels, who appear to hold much of northern Iraq. If confirmed, such a raid would violate a cease-fire agreement between Iraq and the gulf coalition.

Iraqi government forces have apparently suppressed a parallel uprising in the Shiite Moslem south, although rebels say they are still fighting in many cities and towns.

The Kirkuk air raid was reported hours after another Damascus-based opposition group accused government forces of spraying acid from helicopters on rebelsfighting for control of two Iraqi cities, Mosul in the north and Amara to the south, on Sunday.

It was the second time in five days that rebel spokesmen had reported acid attacks by Saddam's troops.

The New York Times, citing intelligence analyses, reported that more Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles survived the war than thought earlier, and many have been used against Iraqi rebels.

According to the report, 700 rather than 600 of Iraq's tanks and about 1,430 of its 2,880 armored personnel carriers escaped the U.S.-led land assault in Kuwait and southern Iraq.

A spokesman for the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, a Shiite rebel group, said Sunday that Saddam was moving a large number of his surviving tanks from southern Iraq toward Baghdad.

The tank movement began Saturday, apparently to bolster the defenses of the capital or to head off an advance of insurgents moving south from the Kurdish areas, the spokesman said from Tehran, Iran.

Iranian radio said Baghdad remained under curfew.

As Iraq tried to deal with the rebellion, Iraqi officials attacked U.S. demands for a permanent cease-fire to formally end the six-week war.

The United States has demanded Iraq adhere to all 12 U.N. resolutions enacted after its Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.

The United States also wants a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding the destruction of Iraq's remaining chemical and biological weapons capabilites, keeping an arms embargo on Iraq and allowing for future economic sanctions.

Iraqi House Speaker Saadi Mehdi Saleh said, "The flagrant American plan is designed to strip Iraq of its national and patriotic will." He was quoted by the Iraqi News Agency as calling on the world community "to rebuff" America.

In postwar Kuwait, a second wave of Kuwaiti prisoners of war returned home from Iraq Sunday via Saudi Arabia. Banks also reopened for the first time since the Iraqi invasion, distributing new currency.

Also during the weekend, U.S.-led coalition forces occupying southern Iraq began distributing large quantities of food and water to Iraqi residents.

By late Sunday, scores of military trucks arrived from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia loaded with rations, bottled water and medical supplies. A small U.S. military hospital also was set up in Safwan to treat civilians.

As word of the free provisions spread, Iraqi refugees choked the main street of the small town along the border with Kuwait to get about two quarts of bottled water and two precooked meals usually served to soldiers in the field.

"I've just spent five days walking in the desert with no food and only dirty rain water to drink," said Ali Ahmed al-Khabi. "You can't believe how much I need this."

The 20-year-old student said he and 90 others had walked from the holy city of Najaf, some 200 miles northwest of the border, to get away from savage fighting there between rebels and troops loyal to Saddam.

"Life in Iraq is dead," al-Khabi said. "We have nothing to live on. God bless the Americans for doing this for us. We get nothing from Saddam but lies and bullets."

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(Additional information)

Other gulf developments

- Kurdish rebels say Iraqi bombers and helicopters attacked on Monday, killing many people.

- The United States is close to establishing a permanent land base on Arab soil, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf says/A5

- Saddam Hussein has diverted as much as $10 billion of Iraq's oil earnings for himself, CBS's "60 Minutes" reported Sunday/A5