Faced with a Friday deadline from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to close the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, the State Department announced yesterday that it will try to evacuate the embassy's nonessential personnel and dependents.

But officials continued to insist that the diplomatic mission would remain open in hopes of maintaining contact with the 2,500 Americans who are trapped in Kuwait and to protest the Iraqi occupation along with a number of other countries that have declared Saddam's order to be "null and void."

State Department deputy spokesman Richard A. Boucher said that with the fall of the Kuwaiti government Aug. 2, many of the 120 U.S. Embassy officials and their dependents had no reason to remain in Kuwait and that a smaller staff headed by Ambassador W. Nathaniel Howell could adequately represent U.S. interests.

Boucher refused to speculate what might happen at noon Friday Kuwait time, the deadline Iraq has set for closure of the embassies. "It's another tick on the clock. We'll see what happens," he said in the same low-key tone that has become his style during the department's daily briefings on the crisis.

There was new confusion, meanwhile, over the status of the 13,000 Westerners in Iraq and Kuwait and increased concern over the Americans among them.

Iraq was reported last night to have declared that 560 French nationals and 500 Japanese could leave the two countries, but it also was reported to have reversed a decision to allow residents from seven other European nations to leave.

The move to free the French and Japanese was described by Iraqi officials as an effort to persuade "certain parties" to break with the United States over its policies toward Iraq. Reuter news service quoted Iraq's minister of information as saying in Baghdad that the 600 citizens of Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands and Spain would not be freed, as a military leader had said Sunday.

But the information minister, Naji Hadithi, said they would not be placed, as some Western hostages have been, at military targets.

As for the Americans, there were these disclosures from the State Department yesterday:

Since the Iraqi invasion, embassy officials in Kuwait have had contact with 1,982 of the 2,500 Americans believed to be in the country, leaving about 500 unaccounted for. Many of those may be children or spouses of Kuwaiti citizens, hold dual citizenship, or could have left the country without telling U.S. officials, Boucher said. Officials held out little hope that Iraq will heed U.S. requests and permit any of the trapped Americans, including 12 said to have serious medical problems, to leave Kuwait with the diplomats. Iraq has refused all such requests with the exception of a 10-year-old California girl allowed out Aug. 11.

The department has begun advising the Americans who wish to escape by traveling across Kuwait's vast desert that they "should plan their route carefully" and be aware that Iraqi soldiers would attempt to detain them.

That warning was a change from the department's earlier advice to remain in contact with the embassy, stay in their homes and "keep a low profile."

"As time changes, a lot of things change," Boucher said yesterday when asked about the new advice. "The situation for Americans in Kuwait has changed. The statements being made by the Iraqi government and Iraqi authorities in Kuwait have changed."

Boucher said that about 60 American dependents, including 30 children, and an unspecified number of other embassy workers would depart Kuwait "in the next day or two" by road for Baghdad. "We have been assured that these people will be able to exit by this route through Baghdad and then onward outside of the country," he said.

Although the Iraqis have blocked most Americans from leaving, Boucher said Baghdad authorities consistently have said diplomats would be free to travel in and out of the country. "In this case we're going to take Iraqis at their word and try it," he said.

The families of eight Americans attached to a U.N. mission in Iraq reached Jordan Tuesday, presumably under U.N. auspices, but Boucher had no other accounts of Americans escaping.

Boucher would not be specific on the size of the staff that will be left in Kuwait but noted that the Kuwait embassy was considered "a large one" with individuals assigned to economic, political and military liaison with the ousted government. The staffers who remain are "diplomatic and consular" officers responsible for maintaining contact with Americans and overall contact with the Kuwaiti government, he said.

As Boucher was announcing the plans to reduce the embassy staff in Kuwait, Michael Saba, head of a newly formed committee of families of the trapped Americans, complained that the department was giving the families too little information about their relatives.

"They have got dozens of people holed up in that embassy {in Baghdad} and they are not getting any straight talk," said Saba, an Illinois businessman who heads a "Coming Home Committee" that is attempting to represent the families.

Saba said he supports President Bush's initiatives in the Persian Gulf but that he was getting an increasing number of calls from families upset over a paucity of information about their missing relatives.

Boucher yesterday offered no new information on the status of the 54 Americans being detained by Iraqi authorities in Baghdad and Kuwait but he said he had no further evidence of Iraqi soldiers attempting to round up Americans in Kuwait. On Tuesday he said an American and 10 Britons were captured after Iraqi troops pointed a gun at a Kuwait resident, demanding to know where Westerners lived.

With Secretary of State James A. Baker III continuing on vacation at his Wyoming ranch, David Mack, a deputy assistant secretary in the department's Near East Bureau, played the major public role in yesterday's developments. In the morning, he addressed a gathering of representatives of about 100 embassies, seeking to shore up support for keeping their governments' missions in Kuwait open. Later he delivered the latest in a long series of protests to Mohamed Sadiq Mashat, the Iraqi ambassador to Washington.

Asked if the protest might be more effective if Baker were in Washington to personally deliver it, a State Department official said that would "not be appropriate and we would not consider it."

While there was little information about the 54 detained Americans, the British Foreign Office said yesterday that 137 Britons in Kuwait have been rounded up by Iraq. The office said it knew the whereabouts of 97; some were in military installations and some were at civilian locations.