IRBIL, IRAQ -- A burgeoning guerrilla army of Kurdish rebels, united by new alliances and Iranian backing, in the past year has posed a military threat to Iraq's control of its northern mountain regions, according to western officials.

Iraq denies that it has lost any territory in the area known as Kurdistan, which western diplomats and military analysts say has been the most active front in the Iran-Iraq land war in the past year.

Officially, Ibrahim Zanganneh, the Iraqi governor of this Kurdish heartland, said in an interview that the "war is not affecting the normal life of people" here. Still, western diplomats and Kurdish exile sources describe a wave of Kurdish attacks, kidnapings and assassinations of local Iraqi officials that have contributed to a destabilization of the area.

Western officials said Iraq has struck back by razing hundreds of Kurdish villages and forcibly resettling thousands of Kurds. According to Amnesty International, Iraq has committed widespread human rights abuses, including the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

"It is worse now than at any time since the war began," said a western ambassador in Baghdad, commenting on the growing military role of Kurdish insurgent groups.

Kurdish guerrilla forces struck last September at Kanimasi near the Turkish border, catching Iraqi forces off guard, capturing equipment and briefly occupying the city before withdrawing, according to Kurdish insurgent officials.

In Iran's biggest offensive this winter, Kurdish forces are reported to be fighting alongside Iran's Revolutionary Guards in a month-long campaign in the mountains northeast of Kirkuk, near Mawat.

Iran has claimed the seizure of 100 square miles of Iraqi territory in that area, including 29 strategic heights as well as a half-dozen villages on both sides of the Little Zab River. The importance of this military campaign, according to Kurdish exile sources, is that it seeks to link Kurdish irregulars and Iranian military forces along a mountainous arc from north-central Iraq all the way to the Turkish border.

Kurdish rebels last month also claimed to have taken control of the northern border town of Deirlouk, destroying an Iraqi intelligence center, the local Baath Party headquarters and the district governor's office.

A few days later, Iraqi military authorities acknowledged a Kurdish attack on the Sari Rash resort, the largest in the country, a few miles northeast of Irbil. A spokesman for the rebels claimed that 1,150 bungalows were destroyed in the attack, along with an Iraqi radio station used to jam broadcasts from Iran.

Iraqi officials said the attack was beaten back without damage to the resort but officials would not allow journalists to travel to the area or to Rawanduz, a Kurdish city near the Iranian border where guerrilla attacks also have been reported in the past year.

The resurgent Kurdish campaign reflects Iran's success in 1986 in bringing together two rival Iraqi Kurdish nationalist organizations, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party, which under the Barzani clan has been the standard-bearer of Kurdish nationalism in a series of uprisings since World War II.

Among the largest ethnic minorities in the Middle East, the Kurds number as many as 20 million people living in ancestral lands encompassing portions of Iran, Iran, Turkey, Syria and the Soviet Union.

Although estimates differ about the relative strengths of Kurdish insurgent groups, informed sources are convinced that together they field at least 25,000 hardened mountain fighters, known as pesh mergas, or "those who walk before death."

The sudden surge indicates that Iran may be seeking to increase its use of proxy forces against Iraq to tie down larger numbers of Iraqi military units on the northern war front as Iran continues its mobilization for its next offensive in the south.

But one western military analyst said, "No one uses the Kurds," and there are indications that Kurdish leaders are negotiating for their future autonomy as the price for playing battlefield surrogates for Tehran.

Kurdish exile sources in Paris said that Iraqi Kurdish leaders met with Iran's parliamentary speaker, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, late last year in Tehran. The sources said he had been instrumental in nurturing the new Kurdish alliance as a means of using Iraq's minorities against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Hoshyar Zibari, spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party, said late last year in an interview in Paris that Kurdish leaders feel their alliance with Iran will bear fruit despite a long record of double-dealing throughout much of the century at the hands of successive regimes in Iran and Iraq.

Zibari said that even if Iran failed to defeat the Baghdad regime in the field and accepted a negotiated settlement, "we do not think Iran will turn against us." In addition, there remains a widespread Kurdish conviction that in the absence of a formal settlement Tehran nonetheless would continue to aid the Kurds as a means of destabilizing Baghdad through subversion.

If the Iraqi leader fell, Kurdish exiles hope their chances for achieving meaningful autonomy would improve. "An incredible situation would be created," said Zibari, "with lots of conflicting interests" that could easily strengthen the Kurds' position and weaken the central government, he added.

If the Iraqi regime survives, Kurdish insurgent groups hope it will be so weakened by the protracted war with Iran as to forgo the kind of repressive campaign that the Kurds have suffered in the wake of past revolts.

Iran's use of Kurdish proxies appears also to have influenced Iraq's military strategists.

In the past 12 months, Iraq has provided border bases for Iranian insurgents of the Mujaheddin-i-Khalq organization, which formed the National Liberation Army of Iran last June to mount direct military operations on Iranian soil. Western military analysts are dubious about the impact of the Mujaheddin up to now, but are closely following its Iraqi-assisted military buildup in the border regions.

Thus, as Iran continues to delay any major offensive in the more strategic southern theater, the Kurdish campaign in the north has captured the focus of many battlefield analysts.

In retaliation for Kurdish attacks, the Iraqi Army has carried out a broad campaign of repression against Kurdish villages, according to western sources, leveling hundreds of hamlets with bulldozers and dynamite in an effort to deter further encroachments by rebel forces.

There also have been charges by Amnesty International that Iraqi security forces have used chemical weapons against Kurdish villages and military positions and have infiltrated Kurdish organizations with intelligence agents, who have then poisoned Kurdish rebel leaders.

Iraq's governor here, Zanganneh, would not allow a visiting reporter to interview the leaders of the Kurdish autonomy group that remains loyal to the central government, but he said that Iraqi Kurds enjoy more rights and freedoms than Kurds living in Iran or Turkey.

"We have been fighting the enemy for eight years," said Zanganneh, "and if there have been some {Kurdish} people who did not want to stay, they were free to leave."

The roads to and from Irbil, as well as the main highway south to Kirkuk, are dotted with Iraqi garrison forces, most of them drawn from Kurdish groups that have remained loyal to the government and enjoy a limited measure of autonomy under Iraq's central government.

Fire bases protected by sandbags and barbed wire are positioned every 1,000 yards along the highway to Kirkuk and mines have been planted along the highway apron to prevent nighttime infiltrations by Kurdish guerrillas seeking to harass commercial and military traffic.

Iraq's military commanders appear willing for the moment to cede control over much of Kurdistan's rugged and snowbound terrain to the Kurdish rebels while concentrating on defending major cities and oil installations. Any strengthening of Kurdish military positions so close to the vital oil complex at Kirkuk, however, could further distract Iraq's armed forces, who are preparing for a major Iranian thrust in the south.

A staff report to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last fall concluded that Iraq's control over its northern Kurdish areas "has deteriorated dramatically" and that "the Kurdish insurgency . . . now poses a major military threat to Iraqi control of the Kurdish region."

In Irbil and Kirkuk, the Iraqi government has been systematically relocating Kurdish families living in the ancient walled citadels that historically protected Kurds from outside attacks.

Government officials say the relocation program has been ordered in the name of tourism, so the old cities can be restored. Western officials, however, say it is part of the security drive to clean out pockets of Kurdish resisters, who use the labyrinthine alleyways of the old citadels to evade Iraqi secret police.

The Kurdish campaign -- the largest since the last major revolt led by the late Mustafa Barzani collapsed in 1975 after the United States and the shah of Iran abruptly withdrew covert support -- has flourished with financing and logistical support from Tehran, and, to a lesser extent, Libya.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, traditionally strong in the region around Sulamanieh, is operating in the mountainous frontier area of northeast Iraq where the current Iranian offensive near Mawat has been under way.

To the north and west, the Kurdish Democratic Party, now led by Mustafa Barzani's son, Massoud, operates in a strip reaching from the Syrian to the Iranian borders.

These two organizations, long estranged by political infighting, reached an accommodation in 1986 despite Iraqi efforts to negotiate a separate autonomy accord with Talabani that would have kept his forces from joining Barzani's.

Correspondent Jonathan C. Randal contributed to this article.