Iraq yesterday allowed a 10-year-old California girl detained in a Baghdad hotel to be transferred to the U.S. Embassy, but the State Department said its efforts so far to obtain the release of more than 3,000 other U.S. citizens in Iraq and Kuwait have been unsuccessful.
President Bush and other administration officials seemed anxious in their public statements to play down potential dangers to the Americans or that they might be hostages.
"I've been encouraged that there have been announcements, I believe, saying people were free to leave," Bush said in response to a question at his news conference about whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might attempt to use the Americans as hostages if the United States persists in efforts to force Iraq to end its occupation of Kuwait.
"I want to see them out of there obviously," Bush added. But he noted that the situation is "a bit unpredictable" and said he would not speculate on what might happen.
Asked about the sensitivity to using the word "hostages," a senior administration official said, "We don't want to make a difficult situation worse. We don't want to use red-flag words that will get people to overreact. It doesn't help to inflame the situation." He added that the administration still believed there was a chance the Americans would be allowed to leave.
The State Department provided no details on the circumstances of 10-year-old Penelope Nabokov's transfer from the Al-Rashid Hotel, where she had been held with 38 adult Americans. The daughter of Peter and Isabelle Nabokov of Albany, Calif., she was a passenger on a British Airways jet that landed in Kuwait last week during the Iraqi invasion and was taken to Baghdad with other passengers.
In a telephone interview yesterday afternoon, her father, a cousin of the writer Vladimir Nabokov, said he had not been notified that she had been moved and said, "I'm not going to talk about this until she is free."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the other Americans at the hotel included 11 oil workers from the Kuwait border region, 24 others who were brought with Penelope Nabokov from Kuwait City and three who were staying at the hotel when the invasion began.
Boucher said they were visited yesterday by Joseph C. Wilson, acting head of the U.S. Embassy, and were found to be in "good condition" and "not subject to any threats." He said they had the free use of all hotel facilities but were not able to leave the hotel grounds.
Linda Parker of Vidor, Tex., said yesterday that the State Department calls once a day to let her know that her husband, Bobby Gene Parker, 48, an electrician detained in the Al-Rashid, is well. She said no one has been able to give her any fresh news in two days except to say that consular officials took reading material to the captives on Tuesday.
"We're on a prayer vigil," she said. "All of Vidor is putting up yellow ribbons and sending food and cards."
The State Department estimates that 3,000 Americans are in Kuwait, many engaged in oil drilling and related business, and 500 are in Iraq. Boucher said that the State Department, after sifting more than 11,000 calls from concerned relatives and other sources of information, had compiled a list of 1,468 individuals known or believed to be in the two countries. The department refuses to release any of their names.
Relatives and business associates said the State Department has told them that embassy personnel have contacted and verified the safety of many people still in Kuwait, as well as those in the Baghdad hotel.
Bill Schaub, an OGE Drilling Inc. representative in Houston, said that the State Department informed him yesterday that it had contacted three employees of the company and one man's wife, who had decided to stay in Kuwait when other workers and families fled. A fourth employee is unaccounted for.
Two OGE employees, among the 11 American oil workers captured from fields on the border, are in the Baghdad hotel, he said.
State Department officials who have been pressing Iraq to let the Americans go, said that their efforts have encountered only evasiveness and stalling in Baghdad. Despite the reports about foreigners being free to leave, the officials said, the reality is that the Baghdad airport remains shut, and the road exit across Iraq's border with Jordan has been closed to all but a handful of foreigners.
"We've seen few signs of progress," Boucher said. "What we have been told is that only diplomats will be allowed to leave, and we in turn have told the Iraqis that all Americans should be permitted to depart. We're not getting the commitment we want that the airport and the borders will be open."
A senior official, who asked not to be identified, said that Iraqi officials have met American demands for an explanation with contradictory answers. "One says it's too dangerous to travel now, and another says, 'There's no danger. What are you worrying about?' One says no exit permits are needed, and then others say it takes two days or five days or eight days to get an exit permit. They clearly are stonewalling us."
In London, the British Foreign Office said it had information that people holding 30-day visit permits or exit visas could leave via Jordan or Turkey if their visas list a specific exit point. However, U.S. officials said there was what one called "total confusion" about the rules and added that only a handful of foreigners apparently had been able to get out of Iraq.
Boucher said the United States plans to test Iraq's promise that diplomats can leave by trying today to withdraw a substantial part of the Baghdad embassy's staff. He said sufficient diplomatic personnel will be kept in Baghdad to "maintain the dialogue" with the Iraqi government and provide help for the Americans stuck there.
Staff writers Al Kamen, Bill McAllister, Jay Mathews and Michael J. Ybarra contributed to this report.