WASHINGTON -- Staff Sgt. Lee Tibbetts, a U.S. Marine providing security to Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq, was keeping a careful watch on several hundred armed Iraqi troops and police who were resisting U.S. requests to leave the town of Zakho.
"Intimidation levels are really growing," he told reporters April 23, noting that refugees were too frightened to enter the town. "It's a very, very tricky situation. I'm telling you, it's getting wild over there."
At a Pentagon briefing the same day, spokesman Pete Williams gave glowing accounts of Iraqi cooperation, asserting that Iraqi soldiers were so helpful they were clearing mines from the side of a road between Zakho and Silopi, Turkey.
"I don't think that anybody considers them right now to be an intimidating force," Mr. Williams said. "Some of the Kurds have come in [to Zakho] and looked at the situation there, and seem to be pretty happy with the way it's going so far."
Since April 17, when the first U.S. troops entered northern Iraq to create a "safe haven" for the Kurds, the Bush administration has promoted the military operation as a relatively safe, successful venture that would not trap U.S. troops in a deadly quagmire.
But that view often has been at odds with the reality in large towns like Zakho and Dohuk, where Western journalists and U.S. military personnel have encountered rising tensions, the reluctance of thousands of refugees to head home and a persistent threat of violence.
Administration spokesmen have been publicly downplaying the security threats to allied military forces and Kurdish refugees -- even after recent attacks on U.S. aircraft, an exchange of gunfire between British and Iraqi troops and the tripling of U.S. forces in the last three weeks to beef up security.
Last Thursday, Mr. Williams called the incidents "isolated" and stressed that Iraqi forces so far have not interfered with the relief operation.
But other officials, noting the inherent conflict between the president's desire to safeguard the refugees and his eagerness to withdraw U.S. forces, readily acknowledge in private that the situation remains dangerous and chaotic.
"It is admittedly a dicey situation," said one well-placed official. "That's why we're trying to get this situation under control and turn it over to some sort of international authority so we can get our troops out of there."
This official said the administration is confident that there is no action being directed by the central authorities in Iraq nor any other organized force.
In fact, he said, the problem is that the Iraqi soldiers are undisciplined and largely out of control.
"There are 10 zillion guys out there with rifles. Every once in a while one gets a little carried away and fires off a round," he said. "There's no evidence that this is planned."
the last three weeks, U.S. forces in northern Iraq have more than tripled to more than 4,500 troops.
A U.S.-led military coalition force has moved east of the town of Suriya, nearly doubling the size of the refuge area.
Initial plans for one or two camps in the Zakho valley have changed; construction of a third camp began last week as the first two reached capacity.
The portion of northern Iraq designated as a haven has become more of an occupation zone.
Troops from the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy are providing the only law and order in a region containing both armed Iraqi forces and what some U.S. officials describe as Kurdish bandits and highwaymen.
As a precaution, a "quick reaction" force of Army infantrymen and Marines has been assembled inside Turkey at the border to respond to any threats to refugees, allied forces and to the supply lines.
In addition, the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt remains on standby off the Turkish coast, and U.S. warplanes from the ship and an air base in Incirlik, Turkey, maintain a round-the-clock patrol over northern Iraqi skies.
But Army Col. Richard Naab, a staff officer with U.S. forces in Iraq, cited the clusters of Iraqi soldiers and armed Kurdish guerrillas in the region when he told reporters recently that U.S. troops could be drawn into a violent confrontation.
"It's kind of a tinderbox," he said.
U.S. military commanders had considered rolling into Dohuk and expanding the security zone to persuade thousands of refugees to go home.
However, the Iraqis have dug in tanks along the outskirts of town, placed mortars in bunkers and positioned anti-aircraft weapons on rooftops, according to an NBC-TV corre- spondent who joined an aerial reconnaissance mission last week.
Both Pentagon and State Department officials were reporting that a general Iraqi withdrawal from Dohuk had been under way, although a military force slightly smaller than a brigade had not yet departed.
They denied reports from U.S. military personnel in Iraq that an elite unit of Iraqi special forces had moved into the area.
Mr. Williams said there are now no immediate plans to enter Dohuk, even though he acknowledged that three of every four refugees in the crowded Zakho camps originally lived there.
"I think administration officials would like to think the risks are minimal," said Jay P. Kosminsky, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization.
"If they get into a situation where they miscalculated, and Americans might start getting killed, it'll look like we're going to be stuck there for a while."
While the widely held view in the administration is that Iraq is unlikely to reopen a war against the U.S.-led coalition, Michael T. Klare, an expert on low-intensity conflicts, said that even small entanglements or a renewed Iraqi-Kurdish conflict could have tremendous costs.
"The Vietnam syndrome will come back in a flash," said Mr. Klare, a professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.
"Bush hinged the success of his regional policy on promises to families and soldiers that troops would come home as soon as possible. I think a lot of people thought the war was over. At some point, a lot of people are going to get upset.
"It strikes me as predictable that the administration wants everything to be hunky-dory," he said.
Administration officials, including White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater and Mr. Williams of the Pentagon, said they are not deliberately playing down troubles in northern Iraq.
They agreed that so far nothing has happened there that warrants greater attention or a more severe military response.
Another official put it this way: "We don't want to restart the war because a couple of 18-year-olds decided to fire off their AK-47s."