GUSHTAPA, Iraq - Iraq has begun expelling families from a 20-mile-long strip of land between the autonomous Kurdish north and the rest of the country, leading to speculation Saddam Hussein is creating a buffer to defend against a U.S. invasion.
The Iraqi government has also placed forces of Mujahedeen Khalq, a militant Iranian opposition group under Saddam's control, near the Kurdish boundary, said Rasool Razgai, an official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
"It seems like they're clearing a buffer zone," said Fawzi Hariri, a party spokesman. "It may be a new method or strategy, and it could well be part of a military maneuver."
Officials with the Kurdish Ministry of Interior estimated 50 Kurdish families living near the border zone have been expelled in the past two weeks. The 20-mile section is part of a frontier that runs hundreds of miles.
Villagers who were hustled out of their homes in the border region say they were ordered to move deeper into Baghdad-controlled Iraq and managed to slip into the Gushtapa area in the Kurdish zone only after bribing Iraqi officials.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party governs the northwest section of the self-rule area set up by oppressed Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War . The autonomous region operates under the protection of U.S. and British warplanes that patrol a northern no-fly zone.
The United States, which believes Saddam is hiding banned weapons despite Baghdad's denials, is threatening to disarm Saddam by force and wants neighboring Turkey to agree to accept American troops.
If Turkey does not allow American troops to use its bases, the United States plans to airlift troops to the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, the private Turkish television station NTV reported Wednesday.
Recent activity at newly reopened Harir air base, in the autonomous region 30 miles north of the town of Irbil, has led to speculation it is being readied for American troops.
As the threat of war looms, tensions have grown along the border between the Kurdish region and the rest of the nation governed by Baghdad. In stretches along the frontier, some already fear being snatched by Baghdad's soldiers, who make incursions across the front into the Kurdish region.
Goli Gerdi Amin, a 40-year-old mother of five, wept as she described how the family was turned out of its home in Makhshooma, 15 miles southeast of Irbil, where they herded sheep and goats and did some planting.
"We had everything over there," she said, as she sat in a rudimentary flat the family is renting for $12 a month. "We had a very comfortable and good life."
She said five Iraqi soldiers went to her house on Jan. 16 just before the evening call to prayer and ordered them to head for the Iraqi city of Kirkuk because their farm lay within the no-man's-land that separates the Kurdish- and Baghdad-ruled parts of Iraq.
"The commander was very cruel with us," said Zeerak Zaher, Amin's 18-year-old son. "My mother began to cry. She's been crying ever since."
The family said they tried to move their belongings, including an expensive water pump and other agricultural equipment, into the home of a friend, but the soldiers returned and ordered them to move out immediately.
Amin said the soldiers at first refused to allow them to cross into Kurdish-controlled Iraq, but after several days of haggling let them go after the family handed over $100 and several sheep and goats.
Overnight, the family lost practically all its material possessions, Amin said.
Police in Gushtapa, 12 miles southeast of Irbil, estimate 12 families were evicted from Makhshooma.