Expanding the exodus of Americans from the Middle East, Iraq has agreed to permit Arab-born male U.S. citizens to join women and children in the U.S.-backed airlift from occupied Kuwait, the State Department announced Tuesday.
A Voice of America broadcast described the accord as an "important development," and U.S. officials said the move could reunite scores of American families separated as foreign-born husbands were forced to stay behind in Kuwait while their wives and children were evacuated.
The State Department warned, however, that U.S.-born American men still hiding in Kuwait "remain subject to detention and arrest" by Iraqi troops. And in another grim warning, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney disclosed that the five-week crisis has sparked a flurry of terrorist threats.
In testimony before Congress, Cheney said pro-Iraqi demonstrations across the Middle East have inflamed anti-American sentiment and elevated "the terrorist threat to our forces in Saudi Arabia and to U.S. personnel and interests worldwide."
The developments on hostages and terrorism came as the Defense Department reported an increase in Iraqi military activity along the Syrian and Turkish borders, but said it had no indication that hostilities were imminent.
In the Persian Gulf, an estimated 100,000 U.S. troops began firing live ammunition as part of their training for a possible military operation against Iraq after their Saudi hosts abandoned a restriction that had forced the soldiers to fire blanks.
A Pentagon spokesman said the live firing of the rifles, cannons and artillery, authorized under a new agreement between U.S. and Saudi forces that became effective Tuesday, was necessary "even though we are in defensive posture."
Iraq's relaxation of its restrictions on evacuation from Kuwait was expected to open the way for an expanded airlift of Americans stranded in the war zone. The United States chartered two Iraqi Airways 747s in the apparent hope of evacuating hundreds more Americans by the end of the week.
About 600 U.S. citizens have left Iraq and Kuwait so far, but the State Department said Tuesday that 1,700 Americans still remain in Kuwait alone. One official said a "significant number" of them are Arab-born men who are naturalized U.S. citizens now entitled to leave.
The agreement by Iraq, although limited, marks the first time it has extended exit privileges to able-bodied American men. Baghdad had previously permitted women, children and the infirm to leave, while decreeing that American men would remain involuntary "guests" of Iraq until the current crisis passes.
In announcing the turnabout over the Voice of America, the State Department said the American men now eligible for departure would include U.S. citizens "born in Iraq, Kuwait or another Arab country."
The broadcast, reversing earlier instructions, urged those foreign-born citizens to "contact the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait immediately." But it cautioned that "Iraq will not permit (U.S.-born Americans) to depart the country."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the announcement was "an important development" and "news that we welcome." But he added that the United States continues to believe that all persons still trapped in Kuwait should be allowed to leave.
The State Department refused to provide an official estimate of how many of the Americans trapped in Kuwait would be affected by the agreement. But in emphasizing its significance, officials noted that many of the American women recently evacuated from Kuwait said they were forced to leave Arab husbands behind.
"Clearly, there are quite a number of families that fit into that category," one ranking State Department official said.
In sounding a new warning about the danger of terrorist attacks, Administration officials emphasized that the United States had not yet received any warning that was both specific and credible--the grounds for an official alert.
But the State Department said at a midday briefing that the United States is "concerned about indications that terrorist groups may be planning operations" against U.S. citizens or other targets in response to the American intervention.
In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Cheney said U.S. officials had received "bomb threats, death threats and verbal warnings from international terrorist organizations."
The defense secretary noted that terrorism could become a significant weapon in the Iraq arsenal. In an apparent warning against a repetition of the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Cheney declared it "imperative that we take adequate precautions to protect our interests worldwide."
At the White House, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater pledged that the Administration would make public any "credible" terrorist threat against an American target.
And in a strongly worded warning, the White House spokesman asserted that "the United States would hold Iraq responsible for any act of terrorism undertaken by organizations based in Iraq or operating under Iraqi guidance."
On the military front, the Pentagon drew no official conclusions in calling attention to the stepped-up activity by Iraqi troops along the Turkish and Syrian borders.
Department spokesman Pete Williams declined even to specify whether the "increased military activity" represents an increase in the number of Iraqi forces or simply more aggressive air and ground operations.
For more than a week, the Pentagon had noted no significant changes in Iraqi deployments. Tuesday's comments appeared to confirm reports from the region that Iraq was assuming a more visible military posture on fronts far from Kuwait.
Asked, however, whether the Iraqi forces have assumed an offensive or defensive posture, Williams said only: "We don't detect any sign of imminent hostilities, and we'll leave it at that."
Pentagon officials said the separate authorization for live-fire exercises by American troops came after weeks of negotiations with Saudi officials concerned about the dangers inherent in the use of live ammunition.
The officials said the Saudi government has now agreed to authorize the firing of guns and artillery with calibers of up to 105 millimeters after being persuaded that such exercises are essential to keep American troops alert during what could be a prolonged stalemate.
The approval does not yet provide authorization for the firing of large 120-millimeter anti-tank weapons and artillery, for which ground rules are still being negotiated, Pentagon officials said. They added that no such permission was necessary for the firing of naval guns, which would normally occur in international waters.