The United States will bring home the staff of its beleaguered embassy in Kuwait if President Saddam Hussein of Iraq keeps his promise to free all foreign hostages, ending the mission’s dramatic defiance of the Iraqi occupation, the State Department announced Friday.
Although the Bush Administration insisted that the action would not represent a concession, it would amount to tacit compliance with Baghdad’s demand for an end to diplomatic representation in the tiny emirate that Iraq now claims as its 19th province.
Coming a day after Hussein ordered the release of an estimated 8,000 foreign hostages in Iraq and Kuwait, including about 750 Americans, the decision on the embassy appears to be another step back from the brink of war in the Persian Gulf.
Iraq’s National Assembly on Friday approved release of the hostages, and U.S. officials in Baghdad went to work on logistic obstacles, hoping to get all the Americans home by Christmas.
“We think we’ve made the political point--that we believe we had the right to keep it open,” White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said in Caracas, Venezuela, where President Bush was concluding a five-nation South American tour. “The personnel there have performed courageously at great personal sacrifice and they deserve to get out when the others get out.”
At the very least, the withdrawal of Ambassador W. Nathaniel Howell III and his staff of seven would remove a source of friction between Washington and Baghdad and eliminate the possibility that an incident at the embassy might cause a military confrontation.
With the diplomatic compound sealed off since late August, there has been persistent speculation that the United States might use force to resupply the mission. Last week, however, Iraqi troops showed up at the embassy bearing fruit, vegetables and cigarettes.
Just as Hussein has asserted that he no longer needs hostages to deter attacks on Iraq, the Bush Administration insisted that there will be no further need to maintain the embassy once the Americans have been released. In effect, Washington and Baghdad each appear to be taking steps long demanded by the other while refusing to characterize them as conciliatory moves.
“With the legitimate government of Kuwait temporarily residing in Taif (Saudi Arabia), the principal function of our embassy in Kuwait city has been to work for the safe release of all Americans in Kuwait,” said State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler.
“If Saddam Hussein follows through on his commitment to let all Americans depart from Kuwait, the embassy will have fulfilled its major remaining task,” she said. “Thus, we expect that Ambassador Howell and his staff would depart after all Americans have departed.”
Tutwiler insisted that the embassy technically will remain open, awaiting the return of the emir of Kuwait and his exiled government. But she conceded that no U.S. government employees would remain on the premises to keep the doors open or the flag flying.
Bush did not comment on the embassy situation, but White House spokesman Fitzwater cautioned against reading too much into the decision to pull out the diplomats.
“Allowing the embassy staff to leave is the right thing to do,” he said. “But it doesn’t have greater political meaning. . . . The fact is there are no deals. We are not changing that policy in any way. I’m assured by all our people there is no quid pro quo.”
Despite the conciliatory appearance of the hostage release and embassy decision, one senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the proper assessment of their combined effect on the prospects for war is that the situation “can go either way.”
It is clear, however, that the absence of American hostages and diplomats would remove a complicating factor from any decision by the United States and its military allies in the Persian Gulf to launch an attack.
“Our purpose is to maintain a steadfast course,” the White House official said. “No change in our policy. No change in our attitude.”
Iraq ordered all embassies in Kuwait to close on Aug. 24, asserting that Kuwait had been annexed to Iraq and no longer existed as an independent country. At the time, the United States, Austria, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the Soviet Union and Germany vowed to defy the order.
The day after the deadline passed, Iraqi occupation authorities surrounded the embassies with troops, preventing diplomatic personnel from entering or leaving and cutting off water and electricity. Eventually, all Western nations except the United States and Britain gave in and abandoned their missions.
For the last three months, the Administration pointed to the embassy as a plucky symbol of defiance. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, for instance, quoted Howell as saying that his staff was “flying the flag in their faces.” Other officials said the diplomats were surviving on canned tuna fish and bottled water.
But in the wake of Iraq’s decision to release the foreign hostages, the Administration seemed to have lost interest in symbolism.
“We are dealing today with a very different situation than we dealt with yesterday,” Tutwiler said when asked if it is no longer U.S. policy to fly the flag in the faces of the Iraqi forces.
“I have stated--which I think there is no debate about--the only function that our ambassador and that staff has been performing has been helping Americans,” she said.
She noted that the embassy had been unable to send Washington much information about developments in Kuwait since Aug. 24 because the staff had been prevented from leaving the building.
Meanwhile, Tutwiler said, Iraq has proposed Dec. 17 as the date for Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz to meet with President Bush and Baker in Washington. Although the date is apparently acceptable to the United States, she said, Washington will not schedule Aziz’s visit until the two countries reach agreement on a return trip to Baghdad by Baker.
Tutwiler and other U.S. officials refused to discuss details of the negotiations about Baker’s travel to Iraq.
Baker is scheduled to be in Brussels on Dec. 17 to attend a North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers meeting, but U.S. officials said that the secretary of state will remain in Washington if the Aziz talks are scheduled for that day.
In a televised interview, the Iraqi foreign minister said officials in Baghdad were trying to resolve scheduling difficulties involving a U.S. proposal that Baker’s meeting with Hussein begin on either Dec. 20 or Jan. 3. “They will be resolved very soon,” he said.
Aziz, on ABC’s “Nightline” program, urged Bush to engage in constructive discussions about the Persian Gulf crisis rather than using the planned meetings to stress U.S. determination to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.
“Better than that is to have a constructive dialogue about our position and the American position and removing the misunderstandings, if there are misunderstandings between us, and get to a real dialogue about what we are going to do,” Aziz said.
Tutwiler said the Iraqi government has said that it will announce today the conditions under which the foreigners will be released. She said Joseph C. Wilson IV, the U.S. charge d’affaires in Baghdad, had urged Iraqi officials to waive most formalities, permitting Americans and other foreigners to go directly to the airport and board flights out.
The U.S. government said it would charter Iraqi Airways planes to carry Americans to Amman, Jordan. If Iraqi planes are not available, Tutwiler said, other aircraft would be provided.
About 750 Americans remain in Iraq and Kuwait, but not all of them want to leave, Tutwiler said. The list includes spouses and children of Iraqi and Kuwaiti citizens and some persons with dual citizenship. Many have been free to leave for months, but have chosen to stay.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.