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Iraq Prepares to Free Hostages After Delay : Gulf crisis: Logistical problems are blamed. About 250 American women and children are expected to be among those who leave.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Iraqi government Wednesday laid the groundwork for releasing hundreds of foreign women and children, among them about 250 Americans, but diplomats said President Saddam Hussein’s decision Tuesday night to free them was so sudden that logistical problems delayed their departure.

Most are expected to leave today. Sources in Iraq’s Information Ministry said a ceremony is scheduled this morning for the foreign media to meet some of the departing hostages, whom Hussein had said he was holding in Iraq as “guests” to discourage attack by Western forces.

Ambassadors from nearly a dozen countries that have sent military forces to the Persian Gulf--and whose citizens have been held here since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2--spent much of the day with Foreign Ministry officials in Baghdad attempting to organize an orderly departure.

There was, however, considerable confusion about precisely who would be permitted to leave. It was unclear whether Hussein’s announcement covered women and children in Kuwait or just those in Iraq and whether it included women with no children here as well as mothers.

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Many of the foreigners in Kuwait are reportedly in hiding, and U.S. officials said they do not know how many of the estimated 2,500 Americans there are women and children. They said “around 250" of the more than 500 Americans in Iraq will be covered by the order. It also will include at least 700 Britons in Iraq, as well as scores of French, Germans, Italians and other Europeans.

The logistics of moving so many people also bogged down the process. At least one international air carrier, Virgin Airways of Britain, offered to run mercy flights to Baghdad.

As of Wednesday, state-owned Iraqi Airways was the only commercial airline flying into or out of Baghdad, and its only regular flights were between Baghdad, Kuwait and Amman, Jordan. In Amman, two Iraqi passenger jets arrived during the day, but neither carried foreign women and children.

In Washington, Iraqi Ambassador Mohammed Mashat said Iraq will release male hostages, as well, if the United States pledges not to attack Iraq.

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“Now we have permitted women and children of all nationalities to leave if they wish to leave,” he said Wednesday. “Once America gives us assurances that they are not going to strike Iraq, and attack Iraq, or aggress upon Iraq, then we are going to let even men out.”

Mashat asserted that Baghdad cannot be blamed for the delays in freeing the women and children.

“It is not possible administratively that everyone go on the same day, is it?” he asked.

At the State Department, spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler characterized Hussein’s announcement as a significant step “if implemented.”

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“We have heard statements like this before, and we hope Saddam Hussein will have the human decency to live up to his word,” she said.

She rebuffed Mashat’s proposal about the male hostages, saying, “We reject any notion that there should be any conditions attached to the immediate safe departure of all foreign nationals. . . .”

U.S. Embassy officials in Baghdad said Wednesday night that they still had not met with the more than 41 Americans who are known to have been taken to key Iraqi strategic sites up to 10 days ago, although they said they expect to do so today.

“At the moment, I think the bureaucracy is trying to interpret the president’s order and work out the difficult logistics involved in getting all these people together and getting them out,” one diplomatic source said. “It certainly seems to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision (by Hussein).”

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Meanwhile, Iraqi pressure on foreign diplomats and civilians continued, American, French and Japanese diplomats reported. At least nine Americans are missing and believed seized by Iraqi security agents in the last two days, and French Foreign Ministry spokesman Daniel Bernard said 40 more French citizens have been rounded up in Baghdad. Bernard said authorities in Paris do not know where they were taken.

Western officials estimate that more than 300 of the more than 12,000 citizens of Western nations who are trapped in Iraq and Kuwait have been taken from their homes and hotel rooms by Iraqi forces. Hussein’s government says some will be housed at vulnerable military targets as a “human shield” against attacks.

Meanwhile, Japanese officials reported Wednesday that their last two diplomats abandoned their embassy in Kuwait. Without food, water or electricity since Saturday, the ambassador and his top aide left for Baghdad. But the Japanese Foreign Ministry insisted that “in principle, the embassy remains open.”

The U.S. and British embassies in Kuwait remained defiant, with skeleton staffs, as did more than 25 other European, Arab and Asian embassies, despite Iraq’s attempts to force them to shut down and move their operations to Iraq.

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Despite the daylong confusion in Baghdad on Wednesday, there were a few lighter moments. The Italian hostages, for example--who were made available for television interviews from their hotel rooms in Baghdad--were all instructed to report to the cultural center of their embassy, where they were shown the film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” while awaiting further word from Iraqi authorities.

Analysts in the Iraqi capital said there appeared to be several reasons for Hussein’s announcement concerning the release, which occurred less than an hour after an internationally televised meeting between the president and a group of Western hostages.

Several Western and Asian diplomats said they believe Hussein felt genuine sympathy for the hostages. Yet, most added that the surprise announcement also appeared to be a shrewd political move to gain a higher moral ground before today’s scheduled meeting in Jordan between Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz and U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

On the eve of the crisis talks, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher insisted that there is no room for mediation.

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Winding up a two-day state visit to Finland, Thatcher, who has been unbending on the basic issues of the Persian Gulf confrontation, told reporters that the U.N. Security Council resolutions “were clear and must be enforced.” These resolutions demand that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait and empower foreign forces to do whatever it takes to block supplies to Iraq. “The policy has been laid down by the Security Council. . . . The question is implementation,” Thatcher said.

Taking an even harder line was Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Mohammed ibn Mubarak al Khalifa. Speaking to British reporters with touring Defense Secretary Tom King, the Bahraini sheik declared: “What we want now is a free Kuwait. . . . We have the right to defend it, and the military option is open because others do not want to listen to withdrawal.”

Officials of Bahrain, whose government 10 days ago approved deployment of Western forces on its soil, have supported the U.N. stand, but the foreign minister’s remarks, as reported on British television, were unusually tough.

“There must be action to liberate Kuwait,” he said. “We will not let Kuwait be occupied for long. . . . If the sanctions do not materialize, we have the legitimate right to regain Kuwait.”

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Although the exodus of hostages did not materialize Wednesday, Asian and Arab refugees from Kuwait and Iraq continued to pour across the border into Jordan. At Ruweished, the frontier crossing, the Jordanian government set up a tent city on an asphalt parking lot, and hundreds of impoverished workers sought shelter from the blazing sun while awaiting transportation to Amman--and, with luck, an airplane home.

Egyptian citizens, the most numerous group, generally were whisked away by bus to the southern port of Aqaba for an airlift or ferry back to Egypt. But a host of refugees heading for the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Indonesia were kept waiting because a backlog of compatriots has built up in Amman.

“I have been here for four days, and no one tells me what to do,” said Doy Gutierrez, a Filipino laborer who worked in Kuwait for a year.

Food is scarce in Ruweished although health problems have been surprisingly few--mostly heatstroke. Water is being provided from a hose at the immigration crossing and by tank truck inside a neutral zone where hundreds more refugees are waiting passage into Jordan. In this no-man’s-land, the Jordanians have also set up tent cities to protect the refugees from the heat.

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At Saudi Arabia’s coastal-road border crossing with Kuwait, guards said Wednesday that they had received no word of the new Iraqi announcement on releasing foreign hostages. The border post, which a month ago waved as many as 3,000 cars and trucks through its gates per day, remained desolate as foreigners inside Kuwait stayed put.

At the frontier’s final checkpoint, four Saudi soldiers in desert camouflage manned a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on a Chevy truck, and a number of green-suited border guards watched through binoculars for signs of life across the border.

There was little movement there, and no foreign hostages arrived. But a band of Bangladeshis sitting in the shade of the border house told reporters that their group arrived Monday, after surviving a seven-hour flight on foot across the desert.

According to the group’s leader, 25-year-old Mohammed Nasser, Iraqi soldiers had robbed and plundered their homes in the diamond-shaped “neutral zone” along the Saudi-Iraqi border, where they were employed as farm laborers.

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As they fled, the Bangladeshis were stopped by Iraqi soldiers in trucks demanding food and water, Nasser said. When some young farmers said they had none, Nasser said the Iraqis turned their machine guns on seven, apparently killing all.

The Bangladeshis were awaiting the arrival of their country’s diplomatic representative.

Times staff writers Melissa Healy, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Daniel Williams, in Amman, Jordan, and Nick B. Williams Jr., in Manama, Bahrain, contributed to this story.

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