BAGHDAD, IRAQ, AUG. 31 -- Iraq today insisted that only its state-owned airline fly out the more than 200 women and children held for nearly a month to counter the build-up of Western and Arab forces in the region.
In a move that seemed calculated to delay the release of some of the foreign hostages, the Iraqi government "requested" that the governments of Britain and France grant Iraqi Airlines landing rights for the flights. At the same time, it asked them to permit the jetliners to pick up Iraqi passengers who were "stranded" in London and Paris when a United Nations economic embargo was imposed and Iraq's overseas assets were frozen.
Information Minister Naji Hadithi, a spokesman for President Saddam Hussein, stopped short of calling the Iraqi position a "demand," repeating several times that it was merely a "request." But he made clear that, for the time being, Iraq was offering no alternatives to evacuate a group of 237 of the hundreds of women and children ordered freed this week by Saddam.
The 237, composed mostly of Americans, Britons, Japanese, French and Australians, were held for weeks at strategic military installations as human shields against attack by the U.S.-led multinational military force deployed in the region following Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. They remain prisoners of the Iraqi government, held under armed guard at Baghdad's Monsour Melia Hotel.
In London, a spokesman for the British Foreign Office said his nation did not object to the Iraqi proposal.
"If a plane is coming out here with British nationals on it and is going back empty to Baghdad and Iraqi nationals want to go on it, of course they can go," he said.
But French Foreign Ministry spokesman Daniel Bernard, speaking in Paris, said France "will not give ourselves over to any negotiations, to any trading with anybody."
If permission for the flights is granted, it would technically violate the international embargo and represent a public-relations victory for Baghdad, Western diplomats here said. They added that it would be difficult to restrict the cargo the Iraqi jets would carry on their return trip.
Hadithi stressed that the "request" does not cover the release of the other foreign women and children who were not previously taken to strategic sites but who were barred from leaving the country. They may leave any time and by any means they wish, he said, adding that the Foreign Ministry has yet to determine whether Western airliners will be allowed to pick them up.
Among the Westerners leaving Iraq today were 13 Italian women and four children who arrived in Jordan after crossing the desert, and three Finnish women who crossed to Turkey. Another Italian woman flew to Amman, Jordan.
More than 300 Soviet citizens left for Moscow today aboard an Aeroflot plane.
No American women or children have yet been granted exit permits. In Washington, the State Department said five more Americans had been rounded up by Iraqi authorities, bringing the total known to be in custody to 75.
Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler again criticized Iraqi authorities for failing to make good on their promise to release women and children. "The Iraqis insist on stringing this out and putting all of those innocent people through this cruel ordeal," she said. "Every time we think we have their demands figured out, they change them."
Tutwiler said the nearly 2,500 Americans in Iraq and occupied Kuwait had been divided into categories, each with a different exit requirement.
Mohamed Mashat, Iraq's U.S. ambassador, insisted the delay was only a matter of arranging the departures in "an organized fashion. . . . We are in an emergency situation, and we have our own priorities. The priority is to protect the country."
Britain's Foreign Office said Iraq has issued exit visas to 139 British women and children, while the West German Foreign Ministry said it expected about 100 Germans to be among the evacuees. In Stockholm, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said some of the estimated 50 Swedish women and children in Iraq received exit visas today and the rest were promised theirs Saturday.
Two dozen other Scandinavians were expected to be evacuated, along with 16 Spaniards, five Greeks and 17 Cypriots.
Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador in Kuwait, whose embassy has been under siege by Iraqi troops for a week, appealed for a medical evacuation of about a dozen Americans who have been hiding in the city since the Iraqi invasion.