AMMAN, JORDAN, AUG. 20 -- Iraq today ordered all 60 embassies in occupied Kuwait to shut down by Friday and announced that it has moved an undisclosed number of Western hostages to vital military sites and other potential targets as human shields against attack by U.S. forces.
Baghdad, tightening its hold on an estimated 13,000 Westerners trapped in Iraq and Kuwait, also warned all Iraqi citizens that they would face the "severest punishments" if they harbored any foreigners.
The governments of several countries, including the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France, said they had no plans to close their embassies, despite a threat from Baghdad that embassy personnel would lose their diplomatic status and be subject to detention along with other foreigners stuck in Kuwait since Iraq invaded that country on Aug. 2.
Baghdad confirmed reports today that it was scattering detained Westerners -- labeled today for the first time by President Bush as "hostages" -- among military and civilian sites across Iraq to deter an attack by foreign forces being deployed in the Persian Gulf region.
The "foreign guests of Iraq have indeed been hosted in vital and military installations," a spokesman for Iraq's National Assembly was quoted as saying by the official Iraqi News Agency. The foreigners "have been provided with modern amenities, and they all enjoy good health," the spokesman said, without giving details.
Although Iraq did not say how many foreigners have been relocated, it is believed that about 185 citizens of the United States, Britain and France have been rounded up so far and taken to secret locations, including defense and oil installations.
An Iraqi Foreign Ministry spokesman in Baghdad ordered diplomats stationed in Kuwait -- which Baghdad has annexed and now refers to as southern Iraq -- to "terminate their mission and shut down their embassies by a deadline not going beyond Friday." An order to the embassies to relocate their offices to Baghdad by Aug. 24 was first issued on Aug. 9, but it had gone unheeded by most of the 60 countries represented in Kuwait.
Today, the ministry spokesman warned that those diplomats not complying with the new order will lose their diplomatic immunity as of Saturday and be treated as "ordinary foreign nationals."
The United States, which has 3,000 citizens in Kuwait and Iraq, said the order had no legal standing and rejected it, as did Britain, which has more than 4,000 citizens trapped. "We are not accepting that instruction, and we will seek to ensure that we have people in Kuwait able to keep in touch with our community there as long as is physically possible," British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said in London.
Other countries also said they had no plans to close their embassies, including Austria, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Spain, Sweden and West Germany, according to the Associated Press.
In related developments, U.S. Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney announced today in Abu Dhabi that the oil-rich United Arab Emirates had joined the list of countries helping the United States mount its land and sea blockade of Iraq. With the Emirates agreeing to allow U.S. military forces to operate from bases there, Cheney said U.S. C-130 cargo planes had begun landing there.
Several international emissaries were being dispatched to Baghdad in an attempt to resolve the crisis over the hostages. Two United Nations officials flew to Baghdad following a U.N. Security Council call for the hostages' release. And in Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was sending the head of its Middle East department, Angelo Genadinger, to Baghdad to discuss the fate of the captive foreigners.
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, meanwhile, said today that there was not enough support among its members to call an emergency meeting to consider Saudi Arabia's request for increased output to make up the shortage of 4 million barrels a day caused by the loss to international markets of Iraqi and Kuwaiti production.
Saudi Arabia said Saturday it will increase production by up to 2 million barrels a day with or without support from OPEC. A brief statement issued by OPEC today said the organization's president would meet with other oil ministers before the end of the month.
A few Americans were reported to have fled to Jordan today as thousands of Arab and Asian nationals also trapped since the invasion poured over the border. The Jordanian news agency reported that eight Americans were among 495 passengers who flew into Amman from Baghdad aboard an Iraqi Airways jumbo jet. The eight reportedly are of Arab origin and carried travel documents other than their American passports.
The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory urging the 4,000 Americans residing in Jordan, where the population has been strongly pro-Iraq, to consider leaving because of the invasion and the "continued unstable conditions in the region." The U.S. Embassy in Amman urged Americans to defer "nonessential travel" to the region and is permitting "nonessential embassy personnel and dependents" to depart "on a voluntary basis."
Both Washington and London have dismissed an offer made Sunday by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to free all foreigners in exchange for a U.S. troop withdrawal from the region and the lifting of a worldwide economic embargo against Iraq.
But in Moscow, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said today that there were elements of Saddam's proposal "deserving attention," according to the Soviet news agency Tass. "We are studying all the details and parts of the Iraqi president's speech," he said.
Shevardnadze made the comments after three hours of talks with Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Saadoun Hammadi. Tass said the Soviet minister "expressed satisfaction" to Hammadi that Soviet citizens were being allowed to leave and asked for "a similar decision in relation to citizens of other states."
In Washington today, the State Department said that at least 12 Americans and some other foreigners had been taken from their Kuwait hotels and moved to undisclosed locations, possibly Baghdad. In London, the British Foreign Office said Iraqi troops had taken 82 of its citizens to an undisclosed area, bringing to 123 the number of Britons removed since Saturday.
The British Broadcasting Corp. said the British government knew the whereabouts of 48 of those who were spirited away, and Hurd revealed that "a number of Britons had taken refuge in the last few days in the British Embassy in Baghdad."
French television reported from Baghdad today that some Americans were being held in mobile homes around an electrical plant outside the capital. CBS News reported Sunday that some Americans had been taken to industrial and defense installations.
To highlight its policy of penalizing countries joining the military buildup in the gulf, Iraq declared today that it would free Indonesians and some Argentines because their government had decided not to send troops to enforce U.N.-mandated sanctions.