AMMAN, JORDAN, AUG. 23 -- President Saddam Hussein held a folksy, televised session today with a group of British families being held hostage in Iraq in an apparent effort to win international support as his deadline neared for the closing of foreign embassies in occupied Kuwait.

Saddam chatted amiably with the families, promising to send their letters to loved ones and offering to assign "education specialists" to teach their children if they have to stay in Iraq beyond the opening of school. But he strongly defended his seizure of Kuwait, comparing it to returning a child "to its mother's lap," and he warned, "We can smash and wipe out any aggression perpetrated against us."

He accused the Bush administration of spurning his initiatives outright, without discussion. "No one has conducted a dialogue with me," he said. "Whoever wants a dialogue with us, we are ready."

The Iraqi president's first televised appearance in two weeks came as the United States sent a 30-car convoy of embassy staffers and dependents from Kuwait to Baghdad, leaving Ambassador W. Nathaniel Howell and a skeleton staff of undisclosed size to await the Friday deadline Iraq has set for all countries to close their embassies. Accounts conflict on the hour of that deadline. The convoy reached Baghdad tonight and U.S. officials said it would probably continue out of Iraq Friday.

Despite threats that diplomats who do not leave will lose their immunity, the United States and most countries with embassies in Kuwait, which was invaded by Iraq three weeks ago, have said they will defy the order. A few, including Lebanon and India, have said they will comply.

The U.S. government anticipates that Iraqi forces may surround the embassy in Kuwait, cut off water and telephones and attempt to starve out the remaining staff, but it was not anticipated that this would provoke a major clash between Iraq and the United States, White House correspondent Dan Balz reported from Kennebunkport, Maine.

There were signs that the United States might begin boarding or disabling ships in the Persian Gulf this weekend and, while the U.S. government anticipates a harsh reaction from the Iraqis, it does not expect that such a move would set off major hostilities, Balz reported.

As part of his effort to gain support abroad, Saddam tonight urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a close U.S. ally, to abandon America's interests in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and participate in the redistribution of the oil riches of the gulf region with poor Arabs throughout the Middle East.

Jordan's King Hussein, who has sided with Saddam and refused to abide by sanctions against Iraq imposed by the United Nations, flew to Yemen on the first leg of a tour aimed at forging an Arab front to mediate with Saddam. Hussein delayed closing Jordan's border to the throngs of refugees fleeing Iraq, and at least 11,000 more crossed over today.

In Moscow, the Soviet Union disclosed that it had delivered a strong message to Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi in talks Monday and Tuesday. A Soviet spokesman said Hammadi had been told in a "thorough and firm way" that Saddam's actions were solely to blame for the gulf crisis, that Iraq should withdraw its troops from Kuwait and that "the decision to keep foreigners in the country . . . cannot be justified by any arguments."

Saddam's meeting with 25 British men, women and children, held in a stark room at an unidentified "vital Iraqi installation," drew swift and harsh criticism from the United States and other countries whose citizens are being prevented from leaving Iraq and Kuwait.

The State Department accused Saddam of "shameful theatrics," and said he had refused to deal with "the two issues that really matter -- and that's withdrawal from Kuwait and freedom for innocent civilians."

In London, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher reacted with "revulsion" to the session, a spokesman said, and Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd called it "the most sickening thing I've seen for a long time. The manipulation of children in that sort of way is contemptible."

Saddam declared to those he visited that "you are not hostages," and said they should consider themselves "heroes of peace," although he acknowledged that "I am sure you would prefer to be in Britain now." He told them, "I am not speaking for propaganda purposes but {out of} a truly humanitarian concern that we want you to be safe."

He answered questions, including one from a woman who wanted to be allowed to contact her elderly, ailing mother (he said she could) and another from a woman worried about "problems" that could be caused for her children's education if they missed the opening of school next month. Saddam promised to send "education specialists" from the Education Ministry to draw up instructional programs for them should their stay be prolonged.

He patted chidren on the head, and, referring to one by name, said, "Stuart, I am sure, will be happy to have as part of his life or his personal history that he played a role in maintaining peace," adding, "I am sure that you all have your own diaries and will write down any feelings."

In the end he asked the families to gather around him. "Let's have a collective photograph to remember," he said.

In Britain, relatives reacted with both relief and fear to the scenes of family members with Saddam. George and Alma Morton recognized their son Steven, daughter-in-law Patricia and grandsons Ian, Craig and Gary. They said they were relieved the family looked well.

But members of the Gulf Support Group, a volunteer organization aiding relatives in Britain, reacted with disgust. "It's a PR job and he's stepping up the psychological war," said Jonathan Copley, a volunteer phone worker. Referring to a 6-year-old child whom Saddam patted, Copley said, the "child's body language spoke volumes. He was very frightened."

NBC News, meanwhile, quoted U.S. intelligence sources as saying Iraq had pulled perhaps 50,000 elite Republican Guards back toward Baghdad from Kuwait's border with Saudi Arabia. The account, said to be based on satellite photos, included speculation that Saddam could be facing internal dissent.

Saddam gave no new indication what Iraq plans to do to embassies in Kuwait that remain open, but his government said earlier this week that would be considered an "act of aggression."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined to speculate what Iraq would do, but noted that Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney has warned Iraq that "any attempt to use force against our embassy or any other embassy would be an illegal act which would raise serious concerns in the entire international community." U.S. officials said the embassy's Marine guards were among those evacuated today.

Saddam contends that embassies in Kuwait no longer have a purpose since Iraq has annexed the country, an annexation that most other nations reject. The State Department has said the embassy must remain open to maintain contact with the 2,500 Americans in Kuwait.

U.S. officials said they could not confirm accounts by Polish workers returning home from Iraq who were quoted by a Warsaw newspaper today as saying that they had seen about 35 Americans brought under guard to a chemical factory at Qaim, Iraq, last Friday. Western officials have accused Iraq of moving Westerners to strategic installations as "human shields" against possible attack by the multinational force confronting Iraq.

Two senior U.N. envoys meeting with Iraqi officials in Baghdad to check on foreign hostages there and in Kuwait were scolded by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and told that their organization is "a tool" of the U.S. government, the official Iraqi news agency reported.

Japan flew 178 of its citizens from Kuwait City to Baghdad on Wednesday and Thursday, officials in Tokyo said, and hopes to get them out of Iraq soon.

In a letter to Mubarak broadcast on Iraqi television, Saddam responded to the Egyptian president's emotional appeal to Iraq on Tuesday to withdraw from Kuwait and save the world from a catastrophic war. Saddam urged Mubarak to join the Arabs against "nonbelievers and corrupt" people in Saudi Arabia and charged that Saudi King Fahd had invited U.S. and other foreign military forces to his kingdom to protect an $18 billion personal fortune.

Saddam said Fahd, along with other Persian Gulf rulers, monopolized oil resources that are the right of all Arabs. "The oil of Arabs is for the Arabs," he declared.

He said that the ruling family of Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah, the ousted emir of Kuwait, had amassed personal wealth of $60 billion, and that Kuwait had invested $220 billion abroad that should be used to alleviate poverty in the Arab world. Saddam contrasted this wealth to the poverty of Egyptians, who he said could not enjoy the privileges of young Arabs from the gulf countries.

His plea recalled his Aug. 10 speech in which he urged the "Arab masses" in the Middle East to rise up in rebellion against their "corrupt" leaders, and specifically against Mubarak for supporting the presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia.

Later that day, a majority of the Arab heads of state meeting in Cairo voted to send an all-Arab military force to Saudi Arabia to help it defend itself against a possible attack by an estimated 160,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait.

In contrast to a televised personal message to President Bush last week, in which he called Bush a "liar" and compared him to Hitler, Saddam tonight addressed Mubarak as "excellency," an honorific title widely used in the Middle East.

Saddam noted the $2.3 billion in military and economic assistance Egypt receives annually from the United States, and suggested it could get more if oil in the gulf were shared among all Arabs.

Saddam's 30-minute message, read on television by an announcer, came as three more U.S. warships sailed through the Suez Canal on their way to join the Western armada that is blockading Iraq in the gulf region.

The frigates Elmer Montgomery and Thomas C. Hart and the fast combat support ship Detroit were among a southbound convoy headed for the Red Sea. The aircraft carrier Saratoga, accompanied by two guided-missile destroyers, passed through the canal Wednesday.

Egypt already has sent at least 4,000 troops to Saudi Arabia as part of the Arab defense force, and military sources in Cairo have said it is sending a 12,000-strong mechanized infantry division.

In London, Defense Secretary Tom King said Britain will send a second 12-plane squadron of Tornado fighter-bombers to the region, probably to be based in Bahrain. "We are going entirely for defensive purposes, to safeguard the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia," he said. The 12 planes will join 24 British warplanes, three warships and three minesweepers already in the region.

Jordan's Hussein flew to Yemen today on the first leg of an Arab tour aimed at forging a unified front that would seek to mediate with Saddam to find middle ground between the Western powers and Iraq. At a press conference Wednesday, he said he also hoped to visit Baghdad.

Austrian President Kurt Waldheim and former U.S. presidential candidate Jesse Jackson both announced today that they will go to Baghdad in separate efforts to ease tensions and gain release of Westerners. Waldheim said he will fly to Amman on Friday and go from there to Baghdad. Jackson said he had set no date for his trip.

Sabah Ahmed Sabah, foreign minister of the ousted Kuwaiti government, met in Tehran with Iranian leaders Wednesday night, the official Iranian news agency reported, and thanked Iran's leadership and people for their "sincere stance" against Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, Reuter reported. Sabah also apologized for Kuwait's backing of Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran, saying such support had proven "incorrect."

Meanwhile Jordan delayed its announced closing of its border with Iraq to thousands of foreign workers fleeing that country. At least 10,000, mostly Egyptians, were allowed to enter Jordan today, joining more than 120,000 already there. An Associated Press reporter at the border said 20,000 more, mostly Arabs and Asians, were waiting on the Iraqi side and a Jordanian security official had indicated they also would be allowed to enter before the border was closed.

Washington Post correspondent William Claiborne in Cairo contributed to this report.