The sudden expulsion of families from a 20-mile border strip between the autonomous Kurdish north and the rest of Iraq has led to speculation that President Saddam Hussein is clearing a buffer zone to defend against a U.S. invasion from the north.

Within the last 10 to 15 days, Baghdad has reportedly moved forces of the Mujahedeen Khalq -- a militant Iranian opposition group under Saddam's control -- near the boundary with the Kurdish zone, said Rasool Razgai, an official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

"It seems like they're clearing a buffer zone," says Fawzi Hariri, a KDP spokesman. "It may be a new method or strategy, and it could well be part of a military maneuver."

The Mujahedeen Khalq denied that its fighters were stationed in northern Iraq or assisting Saddam's forces in any way. A spokesman for the group, Farid Soleimani, said the Mujahedeen Khalq had not deployed its fighters in northern Iraq since 1990 when they withdrew southward on the eve of the Gulf War.

"It is absolutely false that we have anyone there," Soleimani said in a telephone call to The Associated Press in Cairo. "We are absolutely not under Saddam's control. ... We are independent here."

The KDP 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.-British warplanes that patrol a northern flight exclusion zone.

The United States, which believes Saddam possesses banned weapons despite Baghdad's denials, is threatening to disarm Saddam by force and wants neighboring Turkey to agree to accept U.S. troops on its soil.

Privately owned Turkish television station NTV reported Wednesday that if Turkey does not permit American troops to use its bases, the United States plans to airlift troops to the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. And recent activity of 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.

Tensions along the border between Baghdad-controlled Iraq and Kurdish Iraq have increased. Stretches along the frontier have become perilous no man's lands where few dare tread. Most fear being snatched by Baghdad's soldiers, who make incursions across the front into the area.

Kurdish Ministry of Interior officials estimated that 50 Kurdish families living near the border zone have been forcibly expelled in the past two weeks.

Villagers who were hustled out of their homes in the border region near Irbil, 200 miles north of Baghdad, 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.

Among them was the family of Goli Gerdi Amin, a 40-year-old mother of five who wept as she described how her 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 apartment the family is renting for $12 a month. "We had a very comfortable and good life."

Five Iraqi soldiers went to her house Jan. 16 just before the evening call to prayer. They were ordered outside as helicopters flew overhead. The family was told that they must leave and head toward the Iraqi city of Kirkuk because their farm lay within the no-man's land, that delineates the Kurdish and Baghdad-controlled 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 tried to move their possessions -- 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. At first the soldiers 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, says Amin, her family has lost practically all its material possessions as well as its home.

Police in Gushtapa, 12 miles southeast of Irbil , estimate that 12 families were evicted from Makhshooma. "Its a nice village," said Amin. "All of the lands around are used for agriculture. It is very green. And the people are very friendly. And they are all Kurds."