Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the accused drug trafficker who rules Panama, now is waging "a form of low-intensity conflict" against Americans in his country.

That's the word from Scripps Howard News Service, which quotes U.S. civilian and military officials as saying the Noriega regime has stepped up its harassment of Americans in an attempt to force Washington to lift its economic sanctions, which were meant to push Noriega from power.A senior Reagan administration official, quoted by The New York Times, painted this frightening picture:

"In the past two months, there have been incidents of beatings, abductions, rape and other physical abuse of American servicemen and their dependents by members of Panama's Defense Forces, the country's military, and the police."

The Panamanian military and police are under Noriega's command, and they would not maltreat Americans without his approval.

The American military has protested such actions, without any practical results.

About 25,000 Americans live in Panama; these include military people, embassy personnel, employees of the Panama Canal Commission, contractors and the dependents of all of these.

Those people are there doing Washington's work, and the government is duty-bound to protect them. If it cannot, it should withdraw them, especially the dependents.

In fact, bringing back the dependents might deliver a useful message to Noriega: that if he continues his outrageous behavior, President Reagan may consider military action, which is more thinkable if wives and children are not at risk.

An evacuation of dependents and its implications could at last convince Noriega that it's time for him to go into exile to be close to his drug millions.