GENEVA — Iraqi military offensives have forced 3,000 Shiite Muslims to flee Iraq's southern marshes this month, and 15,000 more are trying to escape into Iran, a U.N. official said Friday.
Refugees told U.N. representatives they had fled shelling by Iraqi forces, said Marie Okabe, spokeswoman for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. It was unclear whether the refugees were Shiite rebels or civilians.
The high commissioner's office fears a huge exodus from the marshes, where up to 350,000 people are believed to live, Okabe said.
Shiite Muslims staged an unsuccessful uprising against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf War. Last year, Western aircraft began patrolling a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq to protect the Shiites from Iraqi attacks.
A similar zone exists in the north to shield Iraqi Kurds who also mounted an ill-fated revolt against Hussein after the Gulf War.
On Friday, Kurdish groups claimed that Iranian warplanes bombed Iranian Kurdish rebel bases in Iraq's northern no-fly zone while thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards attacked across the border.