PARIS, AUG. 23 -- The French government, spurning an apparent Iraqi attempt to undermine Western unity, insisted today on the immediate and unconditional release of all foreign hostages held in Iraq and Kuwait after Baghdad said it would soon free some French nationals as a sign of trust in the bilateral relationship.
Foreign Ministry officials said an Iraqi government decision to allow some of the 560 French detainees to leave was formally conveyed today by Baghdad's ambassador to France, Abdul Razzak Hashemi, who said the action was being taken in the hope that France would withdraw the forces it sent to the Persian Gulf to enforce United Nations sanctions against Iraq.
A ministry spokesman said the ambassador was told that the French government believes "the freedom to travel of all French citizens, as well as all foreigners, should be reestablished without any delay or conditions." The spokesman stressed that France had "reaffirmed its full solidarity" with all the countries whose nationals are being held against their will by Iraqi authorities.
The number and identity of the French hostages involved could not be ascertained, nor would officials say where the captives are now being held and when they might be allowed to return to France.
Iraq's offer to free some French and Japanese nationals trapped in Iraq and Kuwait was denounced in almost all political quarters here as a ploy to lure two of Iraq's most important trading partners into breaking ranks with the U.N.-mandated sanctions.
European diplomats said intense consultations have occurred in recent days about the need to maintain a unified stance to keep pressure on Iraq.
All 12 members of the European Community agreed to flout Iraqi demands to close their embassies in Kuwait by Friday. Diplomatic sources said arrangements are being made to combine the staffs of embassies there so that Iraq could not single out any one country for preferential treatment.
Iraq's proposal to release French hostages surprised diplomats here, in part, because it occurred just after President Francois Mitterrand bolstered forces in the Persian Gulf and announced that France would take a much harder position against Baghdad. Diplomats said they had expected West Germany to receive favorable treatment for its nationals held in Iraq, after Bonn announced it would not send troops to the gulf because of constitutional restrictions that prohibit the deployment of German forces outside Europe.
France toughened its policy Sunday by giving orders to its nine vessels in the gulf to use force if necessary to keep ships from breaking the trade embargo. Mitterrand held a lengthy telephone conversation with President Bush Monday night and announced Tuesday that he was sending ground reconnaissance troops to the United Arab Emirates and technical advisers to Saudi Arabia.
The technicians will service about 15 Mirage-1 fighters from Kuwait's air force that escaped to Saudi Arabia in the early hours of the Iraqi invasion. The ground forces sent to the emirates consist of 180 parachute troopers who specialize in field intelligence, but whose role at present is thought to be largely symbolic.
According to officials here, France's tougher line on the gulf situation came after Mitterrand recognized Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's unwillingness to pursue plausible diplomatic solutions to the crisis and his clear intention to hold foreigners in Iraq as hostages to thwart any military attack.
Nonetheless, Mitterand's shift to supporting the American position was not welcomed by all members of the government. Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who proclaimed earlier that enforcing an embargo through a blockade would be an act of war, is reportedly dismayed by the change in policy and has privately expressed fears that France may become embroiled in a disastrous military conflict provoked by the enormous American buildup in Saudi Arabia.
Iraqi Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassem, in an interview with the French daily newspaper Le Figaro, appeared to be playing to this political division within the government, when he called the French policy shift "a very grave and very dangerous evolution."
"We were hoping France would adopt a different attitude in this crisis than that of the United States," he said. "France should think of its own interests and not allow itself to be dragged into American conspiracies."
The Iraqis apparently still believe that they can exploit French commercial and energy interests by offering concessions, in the hope of breaking a united front supporting the embargo.
"Wait three months and you will see," Iraq's Ambassador Hashemi told reporters last week. "We can eat dates if necessary, but the blockade will not make us flinch. But can Europe afford to sacrifice 5 million barrels of oil a day?"
During the past decade, France sold billions of dollars' worth of sophisticated arms to Iraq, including Mirage jets and Exocet missiles, to help Baghdad's secular government in its war against Iran's Islamic fundamentalist rulers.
Conservative and Socialist politicians endorsed the relationship with Iraq. Many of them traveled to Baghdad, often to promote the virtues of expensive French weaponry.