The evacuation of hundreds of foreign women and children detained in Iraq was further delayed Thursday even as several dozen of the hostages provided a gripping inside look at their lives, shuttled between hotels and strategic sites throughout the country.
In Washington, anger and frustration mounted two days after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein announced that all foreign women and children could go free immediately. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Iraq has imposed a series of “burdensome” new bureaucratic obstacles and paper work for their release.
“This emotional roller coaster is inhumane and disgraceful,” Tutwiler declared.
But several Western diplomats in Baghdad reported that Saturday is likely to be the earliest departure date now and said they are confident that Hussein’s order will be carried out once bureaucratic tie-ups over exit visas are solved.
“I have no concern whatsoever,” Joseph C. Wilson IV, charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said. “There seems to be some confusion in the implementation of the president’s decree. But I have every confidence that the government will honor the president’s commitment.”
U.S. Embassy officials already had chartered a flight to take American hostages home Thursday night before Iraqi authorities informed them of the further delay.
While the diplomatic controversy raged, more than 50 foreign women and children were permitted to meet with journalists for an hour Thursday, the first government-sanctioned contact between the hostages and the outside world since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2.
With an outpouring of emotion ranging from joy at the prospect of freedom to anxiety for those who might be left behind, the hostages recalled weeks spent under the constant supervision of the Iraqi army.
All the hostages interviewed, most of whom were British, French or Japanese, praised the Iraqis and stressed that they had been treated well.
Most said they had been moved frequently--up to nine times--between hotels in Baghdad and key petrochemical plants, oil refineries, fuel storage depots and power plants elsewhere. None said they were aware of being housed near chemical weapons stores.
Despite their hourlong media appearance, it was clear that the movements of foreigners in Baghdad are still severely restricted. The free-for-all press session, at which no U.S. hostages appeared, was held on the mezzanine of Baghdad’s Mansour Melia Hotel, which was surrounded by soldiers carrying machine guns.
Fourteen Americans who remained secluded in their hotel rooms were allowed access to a representative of the U.S. Embassy but declined to meet with journalists.
About 12,000 foreigners are believed to be still held in Iraq and occupied Kuwait, including an estimated 3,000 Americans. The State Department on Thursday lowered its estimate of the number of private American citizens inside Iraq from about 500 to about 400. It said slightly more than 100 Americans of Iraqi descent have succeeded in leaving the country.
Tutwiler, the State Department spokeswoman, denied reports that foreign-operated planes are being required to bring in food and medicine before the women and children can leave Iraq. The Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Mohammed Mashat, also denied the reports and said, “We are working to expedite (the foreigners’) departure.”
Late Thursday, the British Foreign Office announced that Iraq was arranging to evacuate some British women and children aboard Iraqi Airways at an unspecified time, and Virgin Atlantic Airways said it had secured Iraqi permission to pick up more evacuees.
A trickle of foreigners arrived Thursday in Amman, Jordan. Among them were a British teen-ager of Arab origin who had been visiting family friends in Baghdad, a pregnant Spanish woman, a Lebanese man with a French passport and several Brazilians.
“I am very happy. I just wanted to come out,” the British teen-ager, May Barakat, 17, told reporters as she passed through the airport immigration booth.
The hostages in Baghdad told reporters that the continuing delays were confusing and frustrating.
“I don’t mind this at all,” said one British woman who did not give her name. “I just would like somebody to tell us what’s going on and when we’re going home. . . . Somebody should be telling us something by now.”
Most of the interviews with hostages were conducted out of earshot of the many Iraqi Information Ministry guides who were the journalists’ escorts. But the exercise clearly was part of Iraq’s propaganda campaign to temper the world’s opinion of Saddam Hussein.
During the sessions, the women were surprisingly forthcoming, occasionally critical and predictably shaken.
One Briton, Margaret Hearn, was both conciliatory and angry when she spoke of her Iraqi captors.
“I think they genuinely thought we were doing some good,” she said. “I think they were embarrassed about using us, and they did everything they could (to help us).” But, she added: “Of course I feel used.”
Especially effusive in her praise for Hussein was Jacqueline Blears, whose 6-year-old daughter, Rachel, apparently helped to change the Iraqi leader’s mind on the issue of freedom for women and children during an internationally televised program with the hostages Tuesday night.
“I won’t say anything political,” Blears began. She recalled that during the broadcast she had asked Hussein’s interpreter if the cameras could focus on Rachel for her family back in Britain because it was her birthday, which Hussein himself then mentioned prominently.
When it was over, Blears said, the president approached them. “It was his personal present to her that her, myself, my husband and son were allowed home, and later on it was decided that all women and children--which is fantastic--were allowed home,” she said.
But Blears is an exception, because she is apparently the only woman whose husband also has been promised freedom.
Like all of the others, Sheila Grosvenor’s husband was not. And, in many ways, Grosvenor’s story is poignant and typical of their long month as recipients of what Hussein has called “forced hospitality.”
Grosvenor was among the wives of 35 British military advisers in Kuwait working as the British Liaison Team to the Kuwaiti government when Iraqi troops overran the country Aug. 2.
The next day, the Iraqi army escorted all 35 officers out of the British camp, “and the families were left to cope on their own,” Grosvenor recalled, her 3-year-old daughter, Kayleigh, by her side.
She said she did not see her husband again for two weeks--and then only after the British wives were driven 28 hours by bus out of Kuwait to Iraq’s huge oil refinery at Baiji, about 125 miles north-northwest of Baghdad, where all were reunited. For the next 11 days, she said, they stayed at the refinery and were well fed and cared for, along with the families of Iraqi refinery workers who were taken there as well.
Grosvenor said the Britons spent long hours discussing the tense situation with their Iraqi counterparts.
“They were scared, too,” she said of the Iraqis. “They were scared of a war as well. I kept telling them that I couldn’t believe we would actually go to war. I mean, you don’t believe it’s really possible, do you?”
Describing the psychological impact of her month in captivity, however pleasant the accommodation, Grosvenor said, “I felt all sorts of emotions. . . . I thought any moment we were going to die. It’s a situation we’ve never come across before, and every moment we’re here it’s frightening, because you just don’t know what’s going on.”
Now, Grosvenor and the other women remain deeply concerned about their husbands and other male hostages.
And the hardest part, Grosvenor said, was being reunited only briefly before being separated again so the wives could be taken to the Baghdad hotel Wednesday.
“That was the cruelest part, to reunite us for just 11 days and then split us up again,” she said, her voice beginning to crack. “I mean, the children can’t understand why their daddy is not coming home with us.”
State Department officials said the new requirements for the hostages’ exit include a personal letter from each foreign woman stating that she wants to leave Iraq. The letter must then be translated into Arabic and must have a stamp on it showing that all Iraqi taxes have been paid.
Tutwiler acknowledged that these may be the usual exit requirements for leaving Iraq and may be imposed in some other countries as well.
However, she said, “These are not normal circumstances. These people have not been held for three weeks in normal circumstances. I would think that the decent thing to do . . . is to waive the routine, normal bureaucratic processes, not create new ones.”
Iraqi officials also have implied that the foreign women and children in Kuwait might have to make the long trip to Baghdad before they are allowed to leave the region.
A senior State Department official said one reason the United States objects so strongly to the Iraqi exit requirements is that officials fear some women or children will be placed in a position where Iraqi officials could force them to disclose the whereabouts of their husbands or fathers.
Times staff writer Jim Mann, in Washington, contributed to this report.