BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Iraqi government ordered 250,000 more troops to Kuwait yesterday and decried U.S. criticism of its plan to release foreign hostages over three months, beginning Christmas Day.
The military command, in a statement released yesterday evening, said that seven more divisions would be sent to Kuwait and that additional reserves would be activated.
Talking peace and preparing for war, President Saddam Hussein's regime sent mixed signals to the Western alliance and its Arab allies.
Seven divisions, with an estimated quarter-million troops, were involved in the new deployments, the military said. They will join the reported 420,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq.
In addition, 150,000 reservists will be sent into training, the command statement said. Western diplomats here say that Baghdad is drawing on its last reserves.
In Washington, Department of Defense officials played down the significance of the new Iraqi deployments, noting that they will probably come from the ranks of reserve forces that are poorly trained and ill-equipped.
While Iraq's vaunted million-man army would permit President Saddam Hussein to field greater numbers of troops than the United States and its allies, only a risky decision to divert forces from the Iranian or Turkish borders would free effective new troops for a fight to keep hold of Kuwait, they said.
Roughly 3,500 of Iraq's 5,000 tanks are already committed to Kuwait and the surrounding area, and officials expected that the new influx of troops would man the remaining armored vehicles. Analysts have said that those tanks are the oldest and least reliable of the Iraqi force and already have been raided to supply parts for front-line armored forces.
"He is starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel," said one senior defense official of the announced Iraqi increase.
The Pentagon, citing past increases and significant improvements in the Iraqi deployment, recently announced that it would dispatch a second wave of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, numbering more than 200,000.
Western forces in the Persian Gulf region, mounting steadily since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, will roughly parallel Iraqi deployments once U.S. reinforcements are in place in January.
[In Rotterdam, Netherlands, the U.S. Army began loading hundreds of jeeps, trucks and armored vehicles aboard the first of 20 to 30 ships sailing for the gulf from the world's largest port, a spokesman for the Netherlands army said, Reuters reported.]
Meanwhile, Iraqi Information Minister Latif Jassim rejected U.S. criticism of the proposed hostage release as "cynical manipulation."
"We expect evil of all these persons, and are taking precautions," he said. "We think they are in a crisis and an impasse. The only outlet is peace and a peaceful dialogue."
The U.S. hostages got word of the proposed Christmas holiday release from one of their colleagues who was on the telephone to his family when the report was aired Sunday night in the United States.
Roland Bergheer, 62, a traffic and logistics consultant from Las Vegas, Nev., who was working on contract for the Baghdad government when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, said that the Americans sheltered in diplomatic quarters here viewed the Iraqi announcement with restraint.
"It's nice to think about," said Mr. Bergheer, who serves as a press liaison for the U.S. hostages. "But it really didn't generate a great deal of excitement.
"A lot of things have happened here in the past that might have suggested the same thing," he said, characterizing the mood as one of caution.