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GULF WATCH: Day 129 : A daily briefing paper on developments in the crisis : Hostage Front:

About 500 foreign hostages, including 22 Americans, left Iraq for home. The Americans and eight relatives traveled on a special flight arranged by former Treasury Secretary John B. Connally and Texas oilman Oscar S. Wyatt. The hostage airlifts apparently were negotiated before Iraq’s blanket offer to free all hostages.

Meanwhile, foreign nationals who had been held as “human shields” at strategic sites in Iraq streamed into Baghdad in anticipation of their imminent release. Although the evacuation timetable was unclear, U.S. officials said they were prepared to arrange airlifts beginning as early as today.

Iraq stuck to its insistence that foreign airlines would not be allowed to evacuate the released hostages and that Iraqi Airways planes would handle all freedom flights.

Diplomatic Front:

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In Venezuela, President Bush said the evacuation of American hostages and diplomats would make it easier for the United States and its allies to go to war if Iraq does not leave Kuwait by Jan. 15. “When you don’t have Americans there, and if force is required, that’s just one less worry I’ve got,” he said.

Iraq, rejecting several dates suggested by Washington, proposed that Secretary of State James A. Baker III meet with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on Jan. 12--three days before the U.N. deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. Baghdad has requested that President Bush meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz in Washington on Dec. 17.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said the odds of a gulf war had declined from 50-50 to 45-55 as a result of the planned hostage release.

Military Front:

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Vice President Quayle may visit U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf during the Christmas holidays, according to an unidentified Bush Administration official quoted by the Associated Press.

The Iraqi Military Machine:

* Total Iraqi troops: 1,035,000

* Total Iraqi tanks: 5,500

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* Total Iraqi artillery pieces: 3,500

* Multiple rocket launchers: 200

* Surface-to-surface missiles: 500

* Surface-to-air missile launchers: 330+

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* Combat aircraft: 500+


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