The number of Iraqi refugees seeking food, shelter and medical aid at U.S. positions in southern Iraq has swollen to about 25,000, Pentagon officials said.

Officials were uncertain Thursday how much of the increase came from Iraqis fleeing unrest farther north and from local residents seeking food after weeks of fighting between government forces and insurgents.Foodstuffs are being provided both by the United States, from prepackaged meals stockpiled for soliders, and by Saudi Arabia, officials said.

The refugees were largely near the town of Safwan on the Iraq side of the border with Kuwait, which has refused to take any Iraqis as refugees following the brutal occupation of the gulf emirate by Iraqi troops.

Deputy Pentagon spokesman Bob Hall said the State Department is dealing with the issue of what becomes of the refugees once the United States and its coalition partners withdraw from the region following acceptance of a cease-fire.

But he said their care would likely revert to the Iraqi government or international relief agencies.

In Kuwait City, Western diplomatic sources expressed concern that Iraqi forces might move in and massacre refugees - hundreds of them deserters from Saddam Hussein's army - if there were a sudden withdrawal of forces following the signing of a cease-fire.

"I don't know how the United States government protects Iraqis from their own government," one source said. "None of us wants to walk away and leave people to their own fate, but where they go, what they do (is unclear)."

While one source in Kuwait City said the refugee problem "might might not" delay the withdrawal of U.S. troops from southeastern Iraq, Hall said the influx of refugees has had no effect yet.

Hall reported that for the first time since the war started the U.S. troop level has dropped under 400,000. It now stands at 398,500.

Hall also said officials have been unable to confirm reports of chemical weapons used against Iraqi citizens, but they have second-hand reports of persons with symptoms associated with chemical weapons.