Looking tired but joyous, Edward Johnson, whose short business trip to Kuwait turned into a month-long ordeal, bounded into a crowded Dulles International Airport terminal yesterday proudly holding up an American flag.

One of the first people to greet him and 46 other Americans who returned from Baghdad yesterday was Iraqi Ambassador Mohamed Mashat, who said the release proved his government's good intentions.

"We have brought the sick men for humanitarian reasons at the same time the United States is not taking similar humanitarian action," he said. "You have besieged our country. You have denied our people milk, food."

That was too much for one of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's "guests."

"The ambassador from Iraq is dead wrong," snapped Lloyd Culbertson, who spent the last three weeks hiding in the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. "He lies to the American people, and he lied to them today. I wasn't a guest; I damn near starved to death."

After Culbertson's comments, the ambassador abruptly departed.

Many of the 24 women, 12 children and 11 men who had flown all night on an Iraqi Airways 747 from Baghdad via Paris and London also quickly left with loved ones or headed off to make airline connections home.

One woman, a secretary at the embassy in Kuwait, was taken to Sibley Memorial Hospital by ambulance. A hospital spokesman said Odessa Higgins, 55, formerly of Texarkana, Tex., was in "good" condition with a fractured hip.

The returning Americans who were willing to talk about their experience as captives of Saddam painted a bleak picture of life in the embassy in Kuwait. One said the generators supplying electricity to the compound since Iraq turned off the utilities might last only a couple of days more.

Already, people are boiling water from the swimming pool for drinking and chopping up furniture for fires to heat food, mostly canned meat and frozen turkey, which are spoiling. "I never ate so much turkey in my life," said Culbertson, 76, of El Paso.

"If you rate hotels on a five-star scale, I'd say it's about a minus 15," said Bonnie Anderton, who got out with her daughter, Jennifer, 10, but not her husband, Richard. "It's the only hotel I have ever been a guest in that I don't intend to leave a tip. We've been sleeping on the floor. There was no water, no power, and we were being eaten alive by bugs."

Anderton said she spoke with her husband about remaining with him but decided that it was best to escort her daughter home to Larkspur, Colo. The Andertons moved to Kuwait in mid-June because of Richard's engineering job there. "Next summer, we're going to Disneyland," she said.

They first encountered the Iraqi invasion forces when they drove off from their apartment Aug. 2 and saw the streets filled with troops and tanks. They thought the troops were Kuwaiti forces training. Jennifer waved to them. But when they saw the Iraqi flag, Bonnie Anderton said they hightailed it back to their apartment and hid out for the next week until seeking shelter at the U.S. Embassy.

Conditions soon got worse.

"The rape and looting the first two weeks was unbelievable," Johnson, 62, of St. Louis, said of the behavior of Iraqi troops. Many of the Iraqi soldiers that he saw on the beach outside his hotel were short of food and water, he said. "They're starving. They have no water."

"You can't even call them soldiers," Anderton said. "They're 14-year-old boys, half starving."

Although living at the U.S. Embassy was difficult, Anderton said those who remain there are an "incredible bunch of people."

"The general resolve is that they will just outlast them {the Iraqis}," she said. "I think they'll do that; they'll make it."

Johnson, vice president of a company that makes air-conditioner motors and industrial equipment, was trapped in Kuwait after arriving there July 31 for what was to be a short business trip. He and eight other Americans moved to the U.S. Embassy from a hotel Aug. 17 because they were worried about being taken away by Iraqi soldiers.

Johnson, a diabetic, was one of 11 men with medical conditions that the State Department had said entitled them to priority departure; the others released were women and children, whom Saddam promised to free last Tuesday.

Johnson said he had been in a Kuwaiti hospital twice after the invasion but that the hospital soon ran out of medicine and the doctors left. "The hospitals are cleaned out," he said. "There's just nothing. The city's dead."

Of the returning Americans, about one-fourth had been in Kuwait. The rest had been in Iraq, and one of them had a very different outlook.

Beth Krekeler said she had the "guest experience -- seriously, I did." Balancing her calico cat Menuchie atop a pet carrier, she said, "The Baghdad experience is completely different from the Kuwait experience."

Krekeler, who is originally from St. Louis, moved to Baghdad on July 22 directly from her Peace Corps post in Casablanca, Morocco, to teach English to Iraqi students at the American Cultural Center.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait, classes were canceled before they had begun, Krekeler said. Nevertheless, she and others continued to live in their homes in Baghdad for about a month and tried to arrange private tutoring.

It was still possible to telephone back home, and life had a semblance of normalcy, Krekeler said. However, the massive military buildup caused considerable apprehension. "I'm just reacting, sitting there in Baghdad, and I'm not leaving," she said. "I think the feeling was, 'Oh, they're coming in.' A human fear."

"The feeling was like all the guns in the world were pointed at your head."

Krekeler, her blond hair swept back in a bun, said she is excited to be back on American soil but concedes that her views about the Persian Gulf crisis are mixed. What bothers her most, she said, were what she saw as the motivations behind the quick U.S. military response: oil, materialism.

"I've never seen the world respond {like that} when it's a question of people," she said. "I understand what's happening; I don't know if I approve of it."

Even when she was moved last Monday from her home to a Baghdad hotel by Iraqi soldiers, Krekeler said she detected no hostility. When her 2-year-old cat was left behind, she implored them to retrieve it for her. "I told them the cat was life," she said. They complied.

Krekeler said there were noticeable sanction-generated shortages in Iraq but nothing crippling. Hotel meals were provided -- on the house -- three times a day and typically consisted of rice and meat or fish, even watermelon, she said. Only children were allowed to have Coca-Cola, and coffee and tea were a luxury. Hotel "guests" were allowed to use the swimming pool, she said.

Watching the televised news was a favorite pastime. There were emotional scenes of Iraqi soldiers kissing the earth, and the "United States" and "imperialism" were generally uttered in the same breath, she said.

Krekeler was asked how it felt being one of Saddam's human shields. "I think it's a rather noble thing to be. . . . I mean, I felt I had a purpose," she said.

Krekeler said her group of about 15 people from the hotel joined the Kuwaiti group for the flight home. She described the mood on the 747 as "fear and sadness" for those who left relatives behind.

While she continues to work on her Arabic, Krekeler said she hopes the United States also does more talking. She would like to see a "softening" of sanctions, fewer tanks, fewer threats.

"I'm really excited to be here," said Krekeler. "But I can't wait to go back."

That's not the case for Culbertson, who spent the last five years in a post-retirement job as an electronics teacher to the Kuwait military. "I'm going back to retirement," he said.

Someone handed him a Texas flag to hold up for the camera; a reporter pointed out that the flag was upside down. "Everything else is upside down," Culbertson said.

Staff writer Erin Marcus contributed to this report.