CHWAR GURNA, Iraq (AP) -- The helicopter pad at this military base is one stop for the American forces said to visit northern Iraq's Kurdish zone as they quietly prepare for war to oust Saddam Hussein.
"The Americans were here just a few days ago," said Adnan Arazi, a Kurdish translator working at a guardhouse outside the base.
Just as he puffed out his chest and held his arms in a machine gun-toting pose mimicking U.S. Special Operations personnel, two plainclothes security officials approached.
"There are no Americans here," one told The Associated Press. "You are free to leave now."
Rumors of Americans -- CIA operatives and military Special Operations troops -- are everywhere here in northern Iraq. Word is they are preparing Kurdish-controlled areas for a northern ground assault against Saddam's forces less than 60 miles away.
Sightings of secret American forces have become part of the local folklore. People who live in the lush valleys and stunning mountains of northern Iraq and along the border with Turkey swear they've seen Humvees, vehicles preferred by the U.S. military, at an airstrip that just got a fresh tarmac.
Special Forces have been seen with top local security officials and are said to have slept at government compounds.
Even Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doesn't outright deny there are at least a few Americans in the neighborhood. Asked last month about U.S. ground forces in the area, Myers said there weren't "significant numbers of military forces" in northern Iraq.
"I know everyone says there are Americans here," Honar Rezar said as he played a game of dominos in a village near Qalachalan, a military base that some say houses U.S. advisers. "I think the Americans are hiding in the city."
U.S. forces could operate easily here because Saddam has not controlled this part of northern Iraq since his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. Now protected by U.S. and British warplanes, it has become a tolerant and prosperous region with seemingly democratic institutions, a lively press and many of the freedoms denied other people in the Middle East. Normally, its inhabitants aren't shy about offering their opinions.
But that appears to be changing as the United States steps up preparations for war.
Formerly freewheeling locales have become high-security zones. A military command post belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan at Halabja, where commanders once briefed reporters, is now off-limits to the media. The airstrips in Harir and Bakrajo, once cracked and weed-choked, are smoothly paved.
Friendly militiamen once eager to recount their life stories over sweetened tea have been replaced by stony-faced Kurdish Special Forces who politely decline to disclose even their names. New white tents housing Kurdish guards in desert camouflage and Toyota Land Cruisers with black-tinted windows are recurring themes in the tales of shadowy American comings and goings.
"The Americans do come," said a Kurdistan Democratic Party official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They come from Turkey. They come in small numbers. They come by helicopter or by road. It's no big deal."
The U.S. presence was far greater from 1991 to 1996, when about 5,000 American troops were deployed under Operation Provide Comfort, according to the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank.
The CIA also helped militant groups fighting Saddam's rule, until a civil war between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union reached its peak in 1996 and the Americans left.
After that, there were few visits by Americans. Because the United States and the Kurdish-run autonomous zone have no formal ties, it's impossible for U.S. operatives to come here disguised as diplomats, businessmen or academics.
Easy to spot
Western intelligence operatives tend to stand out in the tight-knit neighborhoods and villages. And on the sparse network of paved roads, Americans are not hard to spot.
On Feb. 15, a New York Times photographer and ABC News cameraman spotted what appeared to be Western officials with Bafel Talabani, a counterterrorism official and son of the Patriotic Union leader.
The reporters began shooting pictures, and were suddenly surrounded by armed men. The footage was destroyed and their equipment returned.
Talabani, acknowledging the incident, told The Associated Press he could neither "confirm nor deny" whether his entourage included Western officials that day.
In the areas controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, officials say privately the Americans are at Sarirash, a gated and heavily protected compound adjacent to the mountaintop town of Salahuddin.
The officials say Masrur Barzani, son of party leader Massoud Barzani, is chief liaison with the Americans.