The reports of atrocities are too widespread to be ignored: A child decapitated. A woman run through with a bayonet. Fleeing young men shot as if they were fish in a barrel. And all this multiplied many times over.

Terrified refugees desperate to escape from Iraq and Saddam Hussein's vengeance for unsuccessful rebellions are pouring out dreadful accounts that pose a sickening dilemma for Americans.President Bush urged the Iraqi people, before, during and after the Persian Gulf war to revolt and overthrow Saddam.

As American troops drove Saddam's routed army out of Kuwait, revolts against the dictator sprang up, like spontaneous combustion, throughout Iraq.

Shiites to the south. Kurds to the north. And thousands of innocent people caught in the middle by the repression of Sunnis who are more powerful by quirk of fate and artificial boundaries drawn up a few decades ago by outsiders.

So far, Saddam is winning, using his still-massive military machine against his own people yet again. There are reports of internationally banned chemical weapons being dropped on Iraqi rebels.

Bush so far is electing to deplore the slaughter of Iraqis against Iraqis - but not to provide any military help for the rebels.

The policy is getting support from congressional Democrats, who fear the United States getting mired in the Middle East.

The reasons for Bush's caution are many:

- Other Arab nations in the area don't want the United States involving itself in the internal affairs of neighboring Arab states.

- The United Nations would never give support for a U.S. military-supported coup in Iraq, which would tarnish the U.S. success in mobilizing the coalition which forced Iraq out of Kuwait.

- The American people are frightened of being enmeshed in another no-win, endless civil war like Vietnam.

- Finally, Bush is leery of doing anything to splinter Iraq, to be snatched by surrounding countries in a destabilizing free-for-all.

But the American people must be prepared for recognizing that the alternative is a nightmare. Many people will die; many more will blame the United States for not preventing the cruelty and barbarism.

If the Kurds and the Shiites had many friends and supporters and relatives in the United States, as the Irish, the Soviet Jews and the Chinese do, American anguish would be greater. But the warring factions in Iraq are a mysterious and distant puzzle here.

The hope in the Bush administration is that the pulverized Iraqi economy and the sheer misery of the people eventually will topple Saddam, who then could be tried for war crimes.

In the meantime, by forcing the destruction of Iraq's biological, nuclear and chemical weapons, the United States hopes to make certain that Iraq no longer can threaten to use its weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, the liberator of Kuwait and Panama must live with the knowledge that by not acting, he is permitting thousands to suffer and die horribly.