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Baghdad Denies Threatening Envoys Who Hide Foreigners : Diplomacy: Iraq asserts that a note asking for names of people under embassies’ protection was misinterpreted.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Joseph C. Wilson IV, the United States’ acting ambassador to Iraq, met with reporters Thursday to answer what Washington has called Iraq’s latest threat to Westerners in Baghdad, he dressed to make a statement.

Tied tightly around his neck and hand-fashioned from a length of clothesline was a noose that Wilson wore with his green pin-striped shirt--his answer, he said, to a diplomatic note this week from Iraq’s ruling Revolutionary Command Council that implied that diplomats harboring other foreigners would be subject to execution.

Wilson’s garb was hardly an attempt at gallows humor: Later, he said the noose was meant as a clear symbol of America’s “utter disdain” for the Iraqi note, which Hussein’s government Thursday flatly denied was meant to threaten Western diplomats. U.S. diplomatic sites scattered across Baghdad have been giving haven to about two dozen Americans seeking refuge from Hussein’s “human shield” of hostages.

The wearing of the noose is another high-profile move by Washington and its allies to fuel the image of Hussein and his leadership as villains.

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In the case of the diplomatic note, which directed embassies to supply the names of foreigners housed in their compounds, Iraqi Information Minister Latif Jasim on Thursday reflected Baghdad’s confusion over an angry response by Secretary of State James A. Baker III and others.

“In fact, this is just a misunderstanding,” Jasim told American journalists, adding that a second note had been sent to all embassies. “It is a mistake.”

He added, “In each crisis, some tension crops up, and sometimes such tension is exploited. We just wanted foreigners’ names to be put on a list so that we will be legally responsible for them.”

The original note, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, was dated Sept. 19 and received by all embassies days before Washington condemned it publicly. Indeed, Britain, which is housing a number of non-diplomatic citizens in a tent city at its embassy compound, received the note Monday. But there was no reaction from London until Thursday, when the Foreign Office followed Baker’s lead in declaring, “Iraq’s threat makes it quite impossible to take seriously its pretentions to be a civilized state.”

“What can I say?” one Western diplomat said with a shrug when asked about the delayed reaction. “Why not take advantage of a slow news week?”

Another diplomat who has been in Baghdad for more than a year added that Iraq’s official wording in the note was consistent with what they had grown accustomed to even before the crisis began last month.

“Most Europeans around here take the view that it was tactlessly drafted, but you get used to such things in Iraq,” he said. “We interpreted this as ham-handed but largely benign bureaucracy--merely a firm reminder that, under Iraqi law, all foreigners in Iraq should simply register (with the government).”

Indeed, senior Western embassy analysts in Baghdad said they originally interpreted the two-paragraph note as an encouraging sign from the Iraqi leadership, although the actual text can be seen as an implied threat to diplomats.

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The note begins by restating an Iraqi policy announced more than a month ago “that housing a foreigner for the purpose of hiding him or her from the authorities is a crime of espionage” punishable by death. It says nothing specifically about diplomats.

Then the note declares that the Iraqi Foreign Ministry “will appreciate it if the esteemed mission would kindly inform the ministry of whether any of its citizens or any other nation’s citizens are residing in the missions, embassies or diplomatic residences, whether or not these citizens have contracts with the government or are working with foreign companies operating in Iraq.”

“In the Iraqi context,” said one European diplomat, “it all sounded like a benign and bureaucratic request at the time. Some missions even thought it implied the Iraqis were considering giving these people exit visas to get out of here. Most of us were quite surprised when we awoke this morning to hear Mr. Baker’s reaction. But strange things happen when you’re on the brink of war.”

Meanwhile, another example of diplomatic confusion emerged out of a 14-word phrase that was deleted, apparently inadvertently, from Hussein’s latest angry speech, delivered Sunday.

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The speech--interpreted as a threat to destroy Persian Gulf oil fields if international sanctions begin to “strangle” Iraq--was widely viewed in the West as an Iraqi escalation toward war. Analysts in Baghdad say it drove up the price of oil by at least $8 a barrel.

But what Hussein actually said in the speech, read out for him in Arabic by a television news reader without English subtitles, was, “If we feel that the people of Iraq are being strangled and that there are some who are directing a bloody strike at the Iraqis, (italics added) we will strangle all those who are the cause of such a state of affairs.” This, he indicated, would include bombing “the land of oil in Saudi Arabia and in other states of the region.”

The italicized phrase was not included in the translation that reached the news media that night.

On Tuesday, when asked by Western journalists about the interpretation that Hussein was deliberately escalating the war of words, Naji Hadithi, a top media adviser to the Iraqi government, handed out the official translation of the speech, which independent interpreters confirmed did indeed agree with Hussein’s original.

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One senior Western diplomat, whose nation is participating in the multinational force in Saudi Arabia, said that even the fiery pronouncements of Hussein and his top advisers that have been accurately translated are often misunderstood by the West.

“By the standards of Arab leaders, none of this stuff has been extreme at all,” said the diplomat, who speaks Arabic. “This rhetoric is an indication that (Hussein) has gotten the message. In the Arab context, they’re the sorts of things you say when your back is up against the wall.”


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