WASHINGTON -- The United States has given Iraq the names of "about a dozen" Americans who should be given top priority for release, for health or other reasons, after learning from Iraqi officials that a small group of hostages may be let go as early as today, U.S. officials said last night.
Word of the possible release came as U.S. officials were preparing a tough statement to be delivered by Thomas R. Pickering, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, warning Iraq of severe consequences if it continues its siege of foreign embassies in Kuwait to the point where the United States is forced to withdraw all its remaining diplomats.
In Baghdad, the leader of an Iraqi-American group that met with President Saddam Hussein Sunday said, "There is a definite commitment by the Iraqi leadership that some Americans will be released."
U.S. officials confirmed the apparent Iraqi willingness to release "about a dozen" Americans. The move comes amid the anticipated release of a number of Britons following a meeting between Mr. Hussein and former British Prime Minister Edward Heath, and signs that Iraq also may release all its French hostages.
"We've heard from the Iraqis in Baghdad that they're considering a release and want to know what the priority medical cases are," a U.S. official said. The Iraqis sought a list of "a dozen or so," the official said. Although the United States previously has given Iraq a list of 69 Americans needing medical help, it agreed to supply a list of a small group warranting priority treatment.
An official said those included fit into different categories, indicating that perhaps factors other than the need for medical care were considered.
In the weeks since its invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2, Iraq has refused to allow the wholesale departure of foreigners from either Iraq or Kuwait and has placed a number of them at strategic sites as shields against attack.
More recently, Iraq has allowed women, children and some men to leave on charter flights arranged by foreign governments, but it has barred most men from leaving, including some who are old or sick.
Of the 69 Americans needing medical treatment, 29 are among the 106 "detained" by the Iraqis, with some of them presumably being used as human shields.
U.S. officials interpreted the anticipated release of Americans as an attempt by Iraq to boost the stature of the Iraqi-American Foundation delegation and its leader, Salim Mansour.
"He's doing it when people come to him as supplicants," one official said. While welcoming the expected release, the officials asserted that all Americans should be allowed to leave Iraq and Kuwait.
Earlier yesterday, Mr. Hussein indicated in a message sent to the Iraqi Parliament that he was considering release of all French hostages. He told the legislators this would be a sign of friendship "in appreciation to liberal French people's rejection" of U.S. policies toward Iraq, the official Iraqi News Agency reported.
France has committed forces to the international military buildup arrayed against Iraq but has maintained a degree of independence from U.S. leadership of the coalition.
Meanwhile, the United States was pushing at the United Nations for Security Council approval of a resolution calling on Iraq to allow supplies of water, food and electricity into foreign embassies in Kuwait.
The U.S. Embassy provides the only contact with Americans barred from leaving Kuwait, whose lives President Bush has said repeatedly he is obligated to protect. The U.S. mission, with a skeleton staff, faces dwindling supplies of stockpiled food.
Once such a resolution is adopted, Mr. Pickering is expected to deliver a statement "implying [to Saddam Hussein] that he better go along or he is not going to like the consequences," a senior administration official said.