Eight men in black uniforms waded into an angry ethnic Albanian mob here the other day, and ordered the crowd to stop hurling stones and cease attempts to storm the largely Serbian neighborhood across the Ibar River that divides the city.

The uniforms identified the men as officers of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel group that must disband as a military force by Sunday under the war-ending agreement between Belgrade and NATO. The crowd dispersed without complaint, a sign of the KLA's influence among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, where NATO peacekeepers wield most of the authority since the allied air war against Yugoslavia ended in June.

It is the kind of role that the KLA wants in Kosovo despite its scheduled "demilitarization" under an agreement it signed with NATO 2 1/2 months ago. KLA hopes are tied to a NATO-sanctioned program to transform about half its 10,000 officers into a civil defense corps. KLA officials regard the corps as the first step toward creation of a national army.

KLA members are also joining a police force organized by the United Nations, and so far represent the majority of recruits. In addition, KLA political leader Hashim Thaqi is often mentioned as the potential leader of a new political party. Combined, the KLA will have a strong advantage over political rivals--especially more moderate ethnic Albanian politicians at odds with the KLA leadership--in a part of the world where military and police traditionally form the pillars of power.

This prospect has upset some Western governments, particularly those in Europe, who hold the KLA in low regard because of doubts about its commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

The United States and its NATO allies have never shared the KLA's aspirations for Kosovo's independence from Yugoslavia and its dominant republic, Serbia. When the KLA launched its armed revolt in early 1998 against Serbian forces, a senior State Department official branded the KLA a terrorist organization.

Washington's relationship with the rebels warmed as the scale and intensity of Serbian atrocities against ethnic Albanians grew. Clinton administration officials courted Thaqi and his aides during the war, when KLA guerrillas helped spot targets for NATO jets and tried to break through Yugoslav defenses under the air campaign's cover.

But NATO and the KLA have often been at odds since the rebels triumphantly returned to Kosovo's towns and villages after Yugoslav soldiers and police withdrew in June. KLA members have taken part in reprisals against Serbian civilians, driving tens of thousands from Kosovo despite Western efforts to get them to stay.

Yugoslavia and its chief diplomatic ally, Russia, oppose the transformation of the KLA into a civil defense corps. They argue it would simply be the KLA in disguise, which would be inconsistent with NATO's pledge to demilitarize the rebel group.

But NATO officials defend the inclusion of KLA members in Kosovo's police force and the transformation of the group into a civil defense corps, arguing that it eases the sensitive task of the KLA's demobilization, which many rebels still oppose. Placing the rebels in civilian pursuits will busy otherwise idle, and potentially dangerous hands, or so the thinking goes.

"It is not in the interest of the international community to have the KLA sitting around, or going around, doing things we won't like it to do," said Maj. Gen. Klaus Olshausen of Germany, one of the architects of the demilitarization plan.

NATO also has come to depend on the KLA to maintain order, as it did during the incident in Kosovska Mitrovica. Failure to provide a face-saving way of keeping the KLA together could mean conflict between the organization and peacekeepers, Olshausen said. "It is important for the peacekeeping mission to avoid confrontation and even the risk of life," he said.

It is in NATO's interest now to maintain good ties with the KLA, but the West ultimately may find itself at odds with the rebel group. Western countries officially recognize Kosovo as part of Yugoslavia; the KLA does not. NATO officials acknowledge that demilitarization of the KLA will not prevent their access to weapons. Hidden caches are still being uncovered in the province.

The KLA makes no effort to hide its desire to become an army. The rebels place that goal in the context of eventual independence from Yugoslavia. The civil defense corps is a first step, its leaders say.

"It will be the beginnings of an army," Agim Ceku, the KLA chief of staff, said in an interview. "I'm sad that the KLA as it is now will be disbanded. It is the biggest thing we in Kosovo had." Ceku said he plans to keep his red and gold KLA patch as a souvenir.

Despite the demilitarization deadline--which the KLA says it will meet--Ceku insists the corps will continue to have access to weapons and for the most part will maintain its current structure.

"I view it as a civilian protection force as a way to help the people and the peacekeepers," said Ceku, who plans to head the unit. "We could help in everything from directing traffic to riot control."

Ceku's comments reflect the tensions between NATO and the KLA about its future. During weeks of negotiations, KLA officials pressed NATO authorities to allow the group to maintain its military status, similar to the U.S. National Guard, but NATO resisted.

In its new incarnation, the KLA will be called the Kosovo Corps. It will handle reconstruction, emergency rescues and logistics. It also will include a ceremonial marching unit with a band. Some 3,000 KLA members will be employed full-time, another 2,000 part-time. NATO and the United Nations will ask member governments for money to pay for the organization.

About 2,000 light weapons will remain stockpiled under NATO control for the corps' use. No more than 200 weapons can be in the corps' hands at any time, including those used by the marching band.

Any security role for the KLA will be limited to keeping order at soccer games, officials said.