SAFWAN, Iraq -- The U.S. Army faces a growing refugee problem as a stream of civilians and soldiers fleeing Saddam Hussein's forces seek protection here.
Hundreds of refugees come in overloaded trucks and on foot to this Iraqi city controlled by allied forces, fleeing what they describe as a murderous and apparently effective crackdown on opposition in southern Iraq by forces loyal to the Iraqi leader.
They threaten to overwhelm allied efforts to provide food and water. U.S. soldiers retreated yesterday when pressing crowds of refugees stormed past guards at an aid station and carried off stocks of food, water and medical supplies.
They also may become a political problem. The refugees, many of whom are former Iraqi soldiers and resistance fighters, are convinced there will be mass killings if the allied forces sign a cease-fire and withdraw from southern Iraq.
"We are sure they will shoot us. They will kill us and kill our families," said a 40-year-old man. "Please tell the world we need help."
The refugees' fears seem supported by the stories they bring. Separate interviews bring consistent accounts of wholesale murders of civilians in southern Iraqi cities where opposition fighting occurred.
"I saw with my own eyes children and women and men killed in the streets," said Sari Mahadi Al-Jaburi, who fled An Najaf, 90 miles south of Baghdad. "They put ladies and babies against a wall and shot them."
None of the accounts could be confirmed. But the refugees clearly are frightened, and many fled in such haste that they left spouses and children behind.
The refugees confirmed that Republican Guard forces loyal to the Iraqi government have regained control of most of the southern towns, though some fighting with opposition forces continues.
One opposition member said yesterday that he saw two carloads of opposition soldiers storm into the Sheraton Hotel in Basra several days ago and kill 10 Iraqi officers.
Some of those opposition forces have given up. A convoy of overloaded trucks driven by U.S. soldiers heading south from the Kuwaiti border yesterday included four trucks full of Iraqi soldiers who have surrendered in recent days, and one truck full of men who said they were resistance fighters.
The resistance fighters, dressed in a ragtag assortment of civilian and military clothes, said they had turned themselves over to allied forces to avoid capture by the Republican Guard.
"We couldn't hide anymore," said Mahsen Khalaf, who said he was from An Nasiriya. "We were discovered by the army, and we were being sought."
In the trucks behind them, Iraqi soldiers dressed in clean uniforms offered much the same explanation for their surrender.
"We are against the Republican Guard and the Baath Party," one soldier said of Mr. Hussein's ruling party. "They have killed our brothers and the Iraqi people."
All the men were being taken by U.S. military police to Saudi Arabia as prisoners of war. The resistance fighters apparently qualified for custody because many of them said they were former Iraqi soldiers, according to the MPs escorting the group.
As POWs, they will be fed and will be safe, even though most were leaving families behind. North of the Kuwait border, however, are civilians who cannot be taken south as POWs and former Iraqi soldiers who do not wish to abandon their families or leave their country.
They have crowded into the strip of Iraq occupied by allied forces, and many come to Safwan, the southernmost town on the border. They are not being permitted to cross the border into Kuwait.
They filled this dusty town of mud-and-concrete buildings yesterday. Children stood on the main highway, beseeching GIs for food, water and cigarettes. Adults crowded around the food distribution sites set up by the U.S. Army.
"They are trapped here. Most of them just want out of Iraq, and they cannot get out," said Lt. Col. John Kalb, a tank unit commander from Bay Village, Ohio, who has found himself in charge of a refugee camp operation.
"The zone is filling up with refugees because this is a zone of safety. They are coming from everywhere," he said. "Most of the people are just scared to death. They say Hussein is killing
everyone. They want to know what we are going to do to protect them."
The allies were slow to take responsibility for the civilians in the zone of southern Iraq occupied since the war. But reports of severe hunger and of families drinking water from puddles in the street aroused the attention of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and four or five days ago the U.S. Army began to bring in supplies.
"This is the part of war I really didn't want to see," said Lt. Carlos Zamora of Pecos, N.M., as he tried to fend off ragged children begging for food. "You come to fight an army, and you end up seeing these little kids. So many of these people are helpless."
The relief effort risks drawing even more refugees to the area.
"I think we'll probably have about 2,000 in the next several days," said Colonel Kalb.
Safwan itself, a farming town with a population that shrank from 8,000 to 3,000 in the war, is quickly filling up again with refugees from other parts of Iraq.
Lt. Col. Bruce Massey, a civil affairs officer from Freehold, N.J., was supervising distribution of bags of flour, infant formula, bottled water and Army rations in the center of Safwan yesterday.
He was in the midst of explaining how his unit had brought order to the distribution by erecting barbed wire when he noticed Arab men running away carrying off big supply bags of flour.
In a moment, order had collapsed, and the lines of waiting Iraqis besieged the building. Colonel Massey and his men withdrew, and in minutes the supply rooms were emptied but for a fine dust of flour and cartons that had been ripped off of bottled water cases.
The same thing had happened the day before, Colonel Massey said. "I was literally holding people back. They were crawling over me, under me. Even women."