US Special Forces cruised through the streets of a town in northern Iraq this week in heavily armored Humvees, loaded with weapons - an about-face from their usually low-profile maneuvers.
The soldiers, dressed in heavy woolen caps and goggles obscuring their faces, rode on platforms at the back of the vehicles. They manned mounted guns and saluted to curious Kurds as they negotiated the dusty roads.
But these troops were heading for a residential district, not the battlefield.
This reporter witnessed the Humvees stopping outside a girls' school - currently closed because of the war - heaving their backpacks over a cement fence into the playground. On the roof of a Christian church next door, US troops were setting up communications equipment.
The entrance to a nearby boys' school had been reinforced with sandbags and armed Kurdish militiamen, pesh merga, were on guard outside. A boys' school was also seen being occupied by US forces, and local residents say three schools - all closed - now house US troops.
The US military, for its part, says it has no information on this particular operation. "But it certainly is our policy to not establish military headquarters or other operations in protected areas under the Geneva Convention," says Lt. Col. Gary Keck, a spokesman for the Department of Defense in Washington.
An armed Kurdish militiamen working with the soldiers was dispatched to order this correspondent to leave - even though the activity was on a public street.
Alfred Rubin, a professor of international law at Tuft's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, says the US actions may violate The Hague Convention, which compels combatants to take "...all necessary steps to spare as far as possible buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, charitable purposes, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected."
"It's a pretty stupid thing to do," says Mr. Rubin. "It does make the thing a target for enemy guerrillas and enemy operations."
This operation comes as coalition leaders accuse President Saddam Hussein of violating the rules of war by hiding military personnel and weapons in civilian facilities. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused Mr. Hussein of using "schools, hospitals, orphanages, and cultural treasures to shield military forces thereby exposing helpless men, women and children to danger."
The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Richard Myers has said, "It is a violation of the law of armed conflict to use noncombatants as a means of shielding potential military targets - even those people who may volunteer for this purpose.
"Therefore if death or serious injury to a noncombatant resulted from these efforts, the individuals responsible for deploying any innocent civilians as human shields could be guilty of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions."
The US troops moved into the residential neighborhood four days ago, according to a local resident, and appear to be planning to stay.
A Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) official familiar with the case confirmed that Special Forces had moved into Ain Kawa, saying that the troops had been offered the empty school buildings by the KDP "because it is difficult to find suitable accommodations for so many people."
The Pentagon will not confirm where US troops are based, saying the information would be of operational value to the Iraqi regime. But a spokesperson for US Central Command in Qatar says, "We are working with the pesh merga, as well as a number of opposition groups in northern Iraq. They take an active role in selecting where we set up our quarters."
The Kurdish official said that the US troops were there to extend the runway at Arbil's main airport so it could handle C-5 and C-17 transport aircraft. These would be use to fly tanks and heavy machinery into northern Iraq in preparation for the coalition attack on Kirkuk and Mosul.
Another resident said his brother had been hired to build wooden partitions in a school hall and convert it into sleeping quarters.
This Kurdish town sprawls within rocket range of Iraqi positions on the other side of the line that separates Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq from territory still held by Hussein's army.
Eric Stover, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), says his organization is talking to residents about the troops, and has contacted lawyers to determine if the move violates the Geneva Conventions.
Based on interviews with residents, Mr. Stover says he believes the troops plan to interview defectors from the Iraqi army
"What is of particular concern here is that it's in a densely populated area and the presence of troops, whatever their mission, makes it a target," Stover said. "We believe this action lies somewhere between legal and illegal. Our interviews with the community have revealed that they are very concerned."
Residents approached by the Monitor backed up HRW claims. One resident said the community was being intimidated into keeping the situation secret.
• Staff writers Seth Stern in Boston and Faye Bowers in Washington contributed to this report.