The decision to close the Kabul embassy is a sign the United States anticipates chaos and possibly heavy bloodshed in Afghanistan's capital as Soviet forces withdraw, U.S. officials and private experts say.

President Bush, at his first formal press conference as president, said Friday the decision this week was a prudent step taken "to protect a handful of American lives" in the face of an uncertain security situation.The decision in Washington was followed on Friday by announcements of imminent departures from Kabul by personnel from the Japanese and British embassies.

Some U.S. diplomats say privately that they expect Afghanistan's Soviet-backed government to collapse after intense fighting with U.S.-backed rebels as Soviet forces meet a pledge to remove all of their forces by Feb. 15.

They fear that anarchy could grip Kabul as the withdrawal deadline is reached, possibly with heavy fighting in the city.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition they not be identified, and private experts listed several key reasons for closing the American Embassy, now staffed by fewer than 10 diplomats, as soon as possible:

-It is located near the airport and a key radio station, both of which might become targets of rebel attacks or be hit by Soviet bombers in counterattacks.

-The Kabul government was responsible for security of the embassy, but its security forces would have other priorities, among them staying alive.

-Hard-line factions of the Kabul government might seize the embassy in a bid to take hostages and save their own lives.

-Kabul is at an altitude of some 6,000 feet, and a snowfall now might isolate the capital for weeks, making escape later very difficult.

Robert Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said it was possible decisions by Washington, London, Bonn and Tokyo to evacuate would hasten the collapse of the Afghan government by feeding a sense of panic.

Washington is guarantor of a multination peace agreement under which Soviet forces, which entered Afghanistan in 1979, are to withdraw completely by Feb. 15.