A war of wills, using a Bethesda office building as a battleground, is running between U.S. government tenants and the landlord they claim is trying to force them out.

Initially, dripping faucets, burned-out light bulbs and occasional lack of paper towels were nuisances, employes of the National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute said of their office space in the Landow building, at 7910 Woodmont Ave.

Now, NIH administrators say, federal workers in the building have been subjected to unwarranted harassment from the maintenance and security staff of landlord Nathan Landow, a Bethesda developer who headed fund-raising in Maryland for the Carter presidential campaign.

The administrators claim that within recent months, five workers have been injured when elevators have fallen, government guard desks and telephones have disappeared overnight and NIH clerks have gone to work only to find their reserved parking spaces occupied and a sign stating, "If you think this car should be moved come see Mr. Landow."

The charges are disputed by Landow, who filed suit against the U.S. General Services Administration last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to recover money for physical damage Landow said the tenants inflicted.

One tenant, Dr. Peter Alterman, administrative officer for the NIH's Child Health and Human Development section, counters, "Nothing we are doing, nothing we have done justifies the treatment we have gotten from Landow. We have gotten verbal, written and procedural abuse from him because we are federal employes. We're caught in the middle."

Landow said that life with government tenants has been a nightmare. The federal employes' lack of concern for their surroundings, he complained, has discouraged prospective tenants from renting his property.

"It has been very difficult working with the government," Landow said. "I can't get answers, I can't get decisions. It just hasn't been the best type of landlord-tenant relationship."

A tour through the floors occupied by the government shows rows of burned-out light bulbs, overflowing toilets with broken seats, walls needing paint and empty soap, toilet paper and paper towel dispensers. An upholstered bench in the lobby is missing, leaving an unfinished wood base.

The government has leased seven of the 14 floors in Landow's office building for the last 10 years at a cost of $6 per square foot, space Landow said is now double the price. Although Landow has offered to pay the federal agencies to move, the government administrators said they cannot find equivalent space at the same rent. As a result, at the beginning of the year, the government exercised the first of its two, five-year options and continued to rent from Landow.

According to officials at the U.S. General Services Administration, major problems with private landlords, such as those experienced by the NIH, are widespread around Washington. Often the problem rests with absentee landlords who are beyond the reach of GSA complaints. NIH administrators point to a second office NIH rents in Bethesda where absentee landlords allowed the building to become infested with mice and bugs to the point that the building's cafeteria was closed part of last year by health officials.

The problem began, GSA officials say, after an office building boom a decade ago when desperate landlords offered the government their vacant office space at extremely low rents with long-term leases. Now, GSA officials say, these landlords are trying to make their offices unattractive to government workers as they seek newer tenants at higher rents.

The government admits internal communication problems have worsened the situation at the Landow building, as NIH administrators criticized the GSA for failing to deal with Landow promptly on maintenance items.