Iraqi President Saddam Hussein yesterday flatly rejected the demand from the international community that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait, and Iraq continued to bar the departure of foreign women and children despite Saddam's announcement Tuesday that they were free to leave.

In an interview with CBS News at the presidential palace in Baghdad, Saddam said he would not retreat from the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait that has stirred global condemnation. "Kuwait is part of Iraq," he declared. "We have said this and the legislative bodies in Iraq have issued {a} clear decree . . . saying that Kuwait is an Iraqi province."

Saddam, seated before an Iraqi flag as he spoke, also warned that he might use chemical weapons to resist an attack. Asked if he would use poison gas, Saddam replied, "I haven't said this. What I am saying is that Iraq is an independent sovereign state and whoever attacks Iraq, to change the government or destroy Iraq, then they should suspect that Iraq is not going to be an easy bite to swallow."

In the interview, Saddam came across as a wily, clever adversary who offered some bizarre comments but in a measured tone. He insisted that American hostages were "guests" who would be shown the doors to bomb shelters before Iraqi citizens. He said the United States "relies on the Air Force, and the Air Force has never been the decisive factor in the history of wars." He offered hints that he might be willing to negotiate but then stood fast on the occupation of Kuwait.

Earlier yesterday, the United States called Saddam's offer on Tuesday to release all foreign women and children who have been held in Iraq and occupied Kuwait a "significant step in the right direction" if carried out. But senior U.S. officials said they were skeptical about when and whether it would be fulfilled.

Twenty-four hours after the announcement raised hopes in the West, none of the women and children had been allowed to leave Iraq, although several countries prepared jumbo jets to fly to pick them up and the U.S. ambassador to Jordan traveled to that country's desert border with Iraq to receive any who might arrive there.

As the West awaited the outcome of what British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd called an Iraqi "cat-and-mouse game," Arab states continued to press for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis and Western states tightened their sanctions against Iraq for its invasion and annexation of Kuwait.

U.S. officials, and Saddam in the interview, denied published reports that Iraq had made a secret peace offer to Washington.

Oil prices dropped to their lowest point in nearly three weeks yesterday as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries ratified an agreement to increase production, but oil sources said the shutdown of Kuwait's refineries is tightening the supply of jet fuel.

Today, foreign ministers of 12 of the 21 Arab League members are to meet in Cairo in an effort to maintain pressure on Saddam, and U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar is to meet in Amman, Jordan, with Iraq's foreign minister. In Geneva yesterday, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat proposed that foreign forces withdraw from the Persian Gulf region to be replaced by a U.N.-sponsored multinational force.

In the Red Sea, the U.S. Navy reported boarding two vessels and "diverting" one of them, which carried cargo for Iraq. Turkey rebuffed a request by Iraq to break the U.N.-imposed trade embargo and France put 26 Iraqi nationals, some of them in the country for technical training, under tight travel restrictions. Japan announced a package of financial, medical and transportation help for the international campaign against Iraq.

State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said Iraq's Foreign Ministry had informed U.S. and other embassies in Baghdad of "preliminary steps" to be taken to implement the decision to let foreign women and children leave. She said Iraq is requiring them to have "exit permits" and that the United States would comply with the request to provide names for this purpose.

But a senior U.S. official said that providing addresses might be more dangerous and difficult because of fear that Americans in hiding could be located and the men rounded up for detention with 70 American hostages now being held.

About one-third of the estimated 3,000 Americans in Iraq and Kuwait are women and children, Tutwiler said. In Kuwait, she said, there are 500 American women; 350 children, ages 3 to 18; and 60 infants and children under 3.

Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Mashat, summoned to the State Department yesterday, told reporters afterward that "even men can leave if the United States can guarantee us that they are not going to strike Iraq."

He did not elaborate, and the State Department said later that he had not made such an offer in a meeting with Deputy Assistant Secretary David Mack, who pressed him for release of all Americans. Tutwiler, asked to respond to Mashat's suggestion, said, "We reject any notion that there should be any conditions" set on the release of Americans.

"We are at this time preparing to evacuate American citizens," she said. "Our preferred method would be by charter aircraft from Kuwait City and Baghdad." But she said there was no indication whether Iraq would permit such an evacuation.

One administration official said that "Americans may be afraid to come out" just on Saddam's promise they can leave.

In London, Hurd told a news conference that "this is a cat-and-mouse game -- now a little mercy, now some more ruthlessness -- and, of course, it's quite unacceptable," Reuter reported. Earlier, the Foreign Office had called Iraq's offer "a small but welcome step away" from the "illegality and inhumanity" with which the Iraqi government has acted so far.

In Cairo, Egyptian officials said that only 12 of the Arab League's 21 member states had agreed to send their foreign ministers to today's meeting, called to discuss implementation of the resolutions of the Aug. 10 Arab summit conference that, in a stormy session, approved the deployment of Arab troops to Saudi Arabia to defend the kingdom against a possible Iraqi attack.

Opposition to today's meeting by a number of Arab states reflects the deep split in the Arab world between the Cairo-led moderate majority and a loose, Iraq-led coalition opposed to intervention in the Arabian peninsula by U.S. and other foreign forces.

Arab and Western diplomats said the main purpose of the meeting, which was ostensibly called to hear a status report by Arab League Secretary General Chadli Klibi, is to maintain diplomatic pressure on Saddam and prevent him from diverting attention from growing world rejection of the principle that any nation can forcibly seize another and annex it.

It was not clear tonight whether Iraq would send a representative to the meeting. Besides Iraq, members opposing the meeting are Libya, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Jordan, Yemen and Mauritania.

The Associated Press, in a report from Amman citing Arab diplomats and security sources, said that Syrian troops have put down violent pro-Iraqi demonstrations in cities along the country's eastern border with Iraq, killing dozens of people. The reports could not be independently confirmed. Syria has sent about 1,200 troops to the gulf as part of the multinational force arrayed against Iraq.

King Hussein of Jordan continued his diplomatic travel in North Africa and Europe yesterday in an attempt to advance an Arab political solution to the gulf crisis that he hopes will allow the foreign forces to leave the region.

At a U.N. conference in Geneva yesterday, a PLO spokesman read a proposal by Arafat that largely reiterated a joint PLO-Libyan plan he put forward earlier this week after meeting with Saddam. It calls for a solution to be reached "in an Arab framework," but specifies that the first step should be "the withdrawal of American and other foreign forces and their replacement with international forces under the flag of the United Nations."

However, both Hussein and Arafat have lost considerable credibility with Egypt and other moderate Arab states for supporting Saddam and condemning the U.N.-backed economic embargo against Iraq.

Perez de Cuellar, who is to meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Amman today, told reporters at the United Nations yesterday that he had received a telephone call from President Bush encouraging him in his efforts to resolve the Persian Gulf crisis and wishing him well, Reuter reported. He spoke in response to a question about remarks by Bush that he was not hopeful concerning prospects for negotiation.

Turkey said it had turned down a request by Iraqi Oil Minister Assam Chalabi, meeting at his request with Turkish Minister of State Isin Celebi at the two countries' border, to allow shipments of "medicine and food for children." Celibi told the Iraqi that Turkey will continue its embargo until the United Nations lifts sanctions.

Morocco announced that it has expelled two Iraqi officials in retaliation for Iraq's decision to close Morocco's embassy in Kuwait, move its diplomats to Baghdad and hold them as hostages, AP reported.

NBC News reported last night that thousands of Kuwaiti resistance fighters are mounting guerrilla raids against Iraqi forces with organizational and technical help from U.S. Special Forces troops and the CIA.

A congressional source said the Bush administration has not sent a formal national security "finding" to the intelligence committees about such CIA activity, but under special rules, the administration could be supporting the Kuwaiti resistance while keeping key Democratic and Republican leaders apprised of it.

The source said intelligence reports from the Middle East indicate that the Kuwaiti resistance has become increasingly more organized and sophisticated in recent weeks, and has successfully mounted cross-border operations from Saudi Arabia to attack Iraqi positions and supply lines. "They've used car bombs against tanks and things like that," the source said.

NBC's report said Saudi Arabia and the exile government of Kuwait were funding the covert operations, but the CIA was providing organization and intelligence, including maps, special weapons and tactical advice.

Also yesterday, the White House said that a former official of a previous U.S. administration, who was not further identified, had approached National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft recently with "ideas" about the Persian Gulf crisis.

The White House said, "There was nothing in this particular proposal that merited its pursuit." The statement was issued in response to a story in the newspaper Newsday that said Iraq had made a secret offer to the United States to withdraw from Kuwait and free foreign hostages in exchange for concessions such as control of key oil fields.

A senior U.S. official said the idea was "not treated seriously" and called it "trash over the transom."

Washington Post correspondents William Claiborne in Cairo and Nora Boustany in Amman and staff writer Patrick Tyler in Washington contributed to this article.