WASHINGTON -- The United States announced yesterday that it would withdraw its embassy staff from Kuwait once all other Americans had left, saying the diplomats' main function of helping trapped Americans will have been completed.
The decision removes a secondary source of tension between the United States and Iraq: U.S. defiance of Iraq's order to shut down all embassies in Kuwait, and Iraq's state of siege against U.S. diplomats there.
It came as discussions continued between the two countries over dates for direct meetings before the Jan. 15 United Nations deadline for Iraqi troops to withdraw from Kuwait.
The United States said it would not agree to Iraq's proposed Dec. 17 date for a meeting between its foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, and President Bush until Iraq had agreed to a date for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to meet with President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
Mr. Aziz said in an interview to be aired last night on ABC's "Nightline" that the United States had proposed two dates for the Baker trip to Baghdad: the Dec. 20-22 period, or Jan. 3. He said that problems over arrangements "will be solved very soon."
The Bush administration, meanwhile, wrestled with a decision on
whether to support a proposed U.N. resolution that would endorse an international Middle East peace conference at "the appropriate time."
While such wording conforms with long-held U.S. policy, its adoption now could be interpreted as a concession to Iraq, which has called for such a conference. It would also deepen strains between the United States and Israel as President Bush prepares to meet Tuesday with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
The announcement that American Embassy staff would leave Kuwait followed Mr. Hussein's move Thursday to release all foreign hostages in Iraq and Kuwait, including about 750 Americans.
"With the legitimate government of Kuwait currently residing in Taif [Saudi Arabia], the principal function of our embassy in Kuwait City has been to work for the safe release of all Americans in Kuwait," State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler said.
"If Saddam Hussein follows through on his commitment to let all Americans depart from Kuwait, the embassy will have fulfilled its majorremaining task. Thus, we expect that Ambassador [Nathaniel] Howell and his staff would depart after all Americans have departed."
The embassy would remain "open" though unstaffed, with diplomats accredited to the al-Sabah monarchy, Ms. Tutwiler said. "We will expect Iraq to safeguard the premises," she said.
Iraq annexed Kuwait soon after it invaded its southern neighbor Aug. 2 and subsequently ordered all foreign missions to close. The United States defied the order, while trimming personnel to a skeleton staff, and kept the American flag flying as Iraqi troops surrounded the compound, shut off power and water and barred supplies from being brought in.
The U.N. Security Council demanded that Iraq allow embassies to be resupplied, and President Bush and other U.S. officials, condemning Iraq's violation of international law and diplomatic norms, issued unspecific warnings about action to protect Americans.