BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Iraqi government will begin releasing all U.S. and other foreign hostages Christmas Day "if nothing happens to disturb the atmosphere of peace" in the Persian Gulf crisis, Baghdad Television announced last night.
The surprise decision of President Saddam Hussein's ruling Revolutionary Command Council said that the hostages -- whom Iraq calls guests -- would be released in groups over a three-month period ending March 15.
"This is to give joy to the families of the guests" on the Christmas and New Year holidays, the Command Council statement said. Scheduled television and radio programs were interrupted to air the report.
The government said that the decision was made as "a response to efforts by good people from different countries and to foil the factors of evil and aggression for the wicked powers of the world."
Top U.S. officials, in Paris for a European summit meeting, dismissed the move as another ploy by Mr. Hussein, and they repeated U.S. demands that all foreign captives be unconditionally freed.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the move "another cynical attempt" by Mr. Hussein "to manipulate families' hopes and fears."
Secretary of State James A. Baker III said that it was "just further cynical manipulation of innocent people's lives."
Mr. Hussein "has it in his power to release them immediately, as the United Nations and indeed the international community are demanding," Mr. Baker said.
British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, also in Paris, echoed Mr. Baker's comments.
In Washington, U.S. experts called Mr. Hussein's latest move a clever ploy to delay a Western military attack and perhaps to lead to talks with the United States.
The Revolutionary Command Council's statement did not say what action might upset plans for the phased release of the foreigners. That omission left open the possibility that Baghdad could stop the flow -- or never start it -- if any development displeased the government here.
Release of the thousands of hostages held in Iraq and Kuwait would remove an emotional element of the crisis and a possible justification for a U.S.-led attack on Iraqi forces.
The period announced for the releases appeared significant not only for the calculated bid to win goodwill at the holidays, but also for the end date, March 15, which falls near the beginning of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan. That, military analysts say, would be an inauspicious time for Western forces to begin a military campaign because of their Arab allies.
Augustus Richard Norton, a senior fellow at the International Peace Academy in New York, said that "up to now, Saddam has played the hostages with great skill, slicing them off in small bits like salami, with just enough slices to keep the taste of peace in the minds of people around the world.
"If he will begin releasing the hostages on Christmas Day, this is no guarantee that we will see all the hostages out of Iraq any time soon," Mr. Norton said. "Perhaps he will use slightly bigger slices, but he can still play this out for a very long time."
Mr. Norton called the proposed completion date of the hostage releases "a shrewd move," coming as the Islamic holy month is about to begin. Later, in April, the weather turns increasingly inhospitable for military operations, he said. Then, in June, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca occurs, a period when a large-scale military operation in Saudi Arabia is considered impossible.
"So, presto, Saddam is attempting to push things into next fall. He bought himself six months. It's very clever," Mr. Norton said.
L. Paul Bremer, former head of the State Department's counterterrorism office and now a consultant with Kissinger Associates, called the offer another "cynical" attempt by Hussein to manipulate U.S. policy and public opinion.
"I don't think it should have any impact on U.S. policy," Mr. Bremer said.
U.S. diplomats here in Baghdad made no comment on the development, which came four days before President Bush's Thanksgiving visit with U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.