BAGHDAD, IRAQ, SEPT. 2 (SUNDAY) -- Amid the tears of families torn apart and memories of a month in Iraqi captivity, more than 550 American, European and Japanese women and children flew to freedom today aboard three jetliners in what was billed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as a massive humanitarian airlift.

The hostage release came after midnight and followed a series of delays, agonizing farewells and intensive international diplomacy, but it left behind thousands of foreign men who are either held under military guard at strategic installations or simply barred from leaving Iraqi territory.

In a few cases, Western women who were told to report with their husbands to pick up their exit visas had to watch the men taken away by security officials, presumably adding to Saddam's human shield. "They basically traded the husband for the visa," said a Western diplomat.

"In actual fact, we're not free," said Hillary Westwood, a British hostage who had to leave her husband behind at a strategic Iraqi camp where they were held for 11 of their 30 days under armed guard. "We're still going to be hostages in {Britain} -- hostage to everything that happens here."

Standing beside her as she waited in the departure line at Saddam International Airport, fellow Briton Kirsty Norman added, "This isn't going to be over for us until everybody gets back."

Dawn Bazner, who was en route to her in-laws' home in Palm Desert, Calif., in part because her husband Kevin appealed personally to Saddam for the release of women and children on an international broadcast by Iraqi television, said that she needed time to think before she spoke. "For now," she said, "our main purpose is to get our children to safety."

There was only a handful of men among the evacuees, most of them among the 26 Americans hiding out in Kuwait whose release was secured by former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson during a Friday night meeting with Saddam and continuous negotiations in Kuwait on Saturday.

Jackson, who visited Iraq and Kuwait as an official guest of the Iraqi government, made a second trip to Iraqi-occupied Kuwait City on Saturday to collect sick Americans from the besieged U.S. Embassy compound there. His late return to Baghdad delayed all of the hostages' departures by four hours.

{At an airport press conference, Jackson thanked Saddam for allowing him to go to Kuwait and contact the U.S. Embassy there for information about the sick Americans and said he was hopeful the evacuation process would lead to a peaceful solution of the Persian Gulf crisis, according to Reuter.

{"It is time for the congressmen, senators and leaders in other countries to work through diplomacy instead of beating the drums of war," said Jackson, a two-time candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. He said Saddam was ready for dialogue and the president's action in freeing the foreigners was a step in that direction. He said without elaborating that there was a plan to allow all ailing foreigners to leave Iraq.}

The first of the three evacuation flights took 68 Japanese women and children on an Iraqi Airlines Boeing 727 to a waiting Japan Airlines flight in Jordan. According to the Japanese Embassy in Baghdad, an additional 143 Japanese men remain in detention at installations throughout Iraq.

Later, a chartered Lufthansa Airbus flew out 250 women and 61 children, among them Americans and Europeans from 10 countries. None of them had been detained at camps, factories, refineries, power plants or storage depots. They were instead stranded in Baghdad under presidential orders barring most foreigners from leaving the country.

{After a five-hour flight, the plane landed at 2:15 a.m. Sunday (8:15 p.m. Saturday, EDT) in Frankfurt, where the passengers -- 60 Americans and 71 Germans among them -- were welcomed by West German politicians, according to the Associated Press. None of the passengers was sick or injured, the West German Foreign Ministry said. Reporters were kept away from the new arrivals.}

About 300 hostages left on the third flight, an Iraqi Airlines Boeing 747 bound for Paris, London and Washington. The government said the trip was free of charge.

{The Iraqi jumbo jet stopped at Paris and London before dawn Sunday, carrying mostly British passengers, along with 22 French citizens and 44 Americans, mostly ill or elderly American men being accompanied by Jackson, according to news agency reports. At Paris's Orly Airport, the released hostages and their relatives hugged and wept in the terminal building. At London, a long line of women, many carrying infants and children, walked somberly down the plane's stairs, many in tears. Sources in London said the aircraft was expected to arrive at Dulles International Airport at 7:30 a.m. Sunday.}

{There was considerable confusion at Saddam Airport over the numbers of hostages boarding the flights, and not even ambassadors had accurate totals of their own nationals on board, the Associated Press reported.}

U.S. and German officials said the flights carried between 17 and 21 American women and children who had been locked up in camps and at other sites in Iraq, in addition to 58 American wives and children of men who stayed behind at their homes in Iraq and Kuwait.

An estimated 500 Americans were in Iraq and 2,500 more in Kuwait at the time of the Aug. 2 invasion, which touched off both the military crisis in the gulf and the hostage drama in Iraq.

Saddam, who met twice in internationally telecast sessions with the detained hostages -- "guests" who he said were recipients of "forced hospitality" -- has publicly announced that they are needed as shields to prevent American air strikes and a prolonged bloody conflict. His advisers also say the hostages are key pressure points on American allies participating in the Western military buildup in the region.

"They are Saddam's insurance against an attack," a European military expert in Baghdad said of the husbands and fathers whom the released hostages were leaving behind on Saturday night. "Militarily, he cannot afford to let these people go now -- not until most of the American forces are out of the area."

A Western diplomat, saying that the release was clearly timed to coincide with the ongoing talks between U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Jordan, added, "It's definitely a peace signal -- a peace offensive, but the West will not look at it that way."

At Saddam International Airport on Saturday night, wives quietly commiserated over the fate of their husbands. Single women wept over the men they had brought to protect them as they were moved from installation to installation. A child cried for her father.

Most of the released American hostages refused to speak on the record. "They've fooled us so many times," a middle-aged American said of the messages they have received from their captors during the past month. "And then, there's our men. I don't think we'll talk much even after we get out of here."

The Britons, by far the largest group of women and children with about 200 evacuees, were far more open, though just as concerned about their men. Most asked that their husbands' names not be used, nor would most specify where they had been held. All those who spoke insisted that they had been well treated and cared for by their guards.

"They were extremely pleasant to us, but it was bizarre," said Westwood, who was captured along with her friend Caroline Johnson and their husbands on Aug. 18 while trying to escape Kuwait through the desert.

"We didn't want to split up," she said of the decision she and her husband were given 45 minutes to make. "But I've got two kids in the U.K. So what decision do you make? Someone's got to take care of the kids."

Westwood reported that seven British women and two children in their group chose to stay behind with their husbands and fathers at the strategic sites.

Kirsty Norman, who is single and was working as a conservationist in a Kuwaiti museum for the past year, added, "All I can say is, the morning we separated was the most difficult of my life."

Arti Lakhani, a Canadian, was en route to be married in the South Indian city of Madras when she became a hostage along with most of her 368 fellow passengers on British Airways Flight 149 when it was stranded in Kuwait during the invasion.

"He better still want to get married," she said with a laugh, as she sent her bags through the airport metal detector.

But Lakhani's eyes began to water when she spoke of "the three guys we dragged along to look after us," three men who remain under detention somewhere in Iraq.

"I'm really happy to be getting out, of course," the 28-year-old British-born woman said. "But it's such a downside, the guys we left. You live 11 days with someone, and, well, you really start to care. You get close. And it's very difficult to let them go."