WASHINGTON -- President Bush welcomed Iraq's promised release of hostages yesterday as a sign that allied pressure "is working," but vowed that it wouldn't weaken resolve to reverse the occupation of Kuwait.
Separately, in a statement that might be seen by Iraq as a sign of U.S. flexibility, Secretary of State James A. Baker III told Congress that Israel would have to share in the regional arms-control burden aimed at reducing Iraq's long-term threat to the region if the Persian Gulf crisis ends peacefully.
The dual message followed Iraq's statement yesterday that it would release the thousands of foreigners, some used as human shields at military sites, it has barred from leaving since the crisis began.
The State Department, in a message to hostages over Voice of America, said, "We are making preparations to evacuate all U.S. citizens as soon as they are permitted to leave." But it also warned them to "stay where you are" until arrangements were worked out.
President Bush, in Santiago, Chile, said, "I hope that it shows that the strategy is working and that Saddam [Hussein] understands that his hostage policy has incurred the condemnation of the whole world, and [that] we've got to keep the pressure on."
The president said release of the hostages "will be welcomed, if true, but it will not change my thinking on his need to comply 100 percent, without conditions, to the U.N. resolution [demanding total withdrawal from Kuwait]."
Mr. Baker, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, added, "It seems to me to be no coincidence that this announcement comes just one week . . . after the international community has authorized the use of force."
Administration officials interpreted the announcement as an effort to soften President Hussein's image prior to the arrival in Washington later this month of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in an exchange of high-level envoys aimed at resolving the gulf crisis.
"This is the first movement, one of many moves," a senior administration official said. "This is not the endgame."
It came one day after a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing at which Democrats aimed withering criticism at the administration for what they called a rush to war and a premature conclusion that economic sanctions wouldn't work.
Mr. Hussein, in his announcement, cited "the decision of the Democratic majority," a possible reference to the committee's refusal to endorse the massive U.S. military buildup and the implied U.S. threat of attack soon after the U.N. deadline of Jan. 15 passes.
The senior official acknowledged that the Iraqi move would give added fuel to opponents of administration policy but claimed it would not convince the American public of the need for a softer approach toward Mr. Hussein.
Representative Dante B. Fascell, D-Fla., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said "it could be just another effort to weaken resolve at home or to drive a wedge in the international community, in the same fashion that [Mr. Hussein] has told the Soviets that all the Soviet citizens would be released."
President Bush and Secretary Baker have vowed repeatedly that the United States would make no concession to Iraq, during the Aziz visit or a subsequent trip by Mr. Baker to Baghdad, that would undermine the string of U.N. resolutions. These call for a total Iraqi pullout from Kuwait and restoration of the al-Sabah ruling family. Others hold Iraq liable for damages and human rights violations.
The United States has taken pains to assure Iraq, however, that if Iraq withdraws it wouldn't attack Iraq, it wouldn't seek the overthrow of Mr. Hussein nor would it use military force to try to dismantle his armed forces, chemical and biological weapons or his nuclear bomb potential.
Mr. Baker has called for intrusive non-proliferation measures to curb Iraq's mass-destruction potential.
Yesterday, Mr. Baker made a further gesture in outlining ways to achieve regional security if the crisis can be solved peacefully.
"I think we must, in the aftermath of this crisis, spend a lot of time examining those issues," he said. "And I wouldn't limit it . . . myself just to arms control or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. I think we need to consider the proliferation of conventional arms in the tinderbox region.
"But if we are going to do that, if we are going to do it on weapons of mass destruction, nuclear and other, and conventional, it means that we must do it across the board in the region.
"And our strong ally, Israel, will have to be a willing partner and participant in that exercise."
Mr. Baker's proposal drew no opposition from the influential supporters of Israel on the foreign affairs panel. One of the most outspoken, Representative Mel Levine, D-Calif., said, "I think that's right, Mr. Secretary; I welcome that."
Israeli sources expect weapons proliferation to be discussed when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir meets in Washington Tuesday with President Bush.