The State Department said yesterday it had confirmed that an American was shot and wounded in the forearm when he tried to evade Iraqi soldiers who came to his Kuwait City apartment rounding up foreign nationals to serve as possible human shields against the danger of U.S. bombing strikes.
The incident -- the first known instance of a U.S. citizen being wounded since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait -- apparently occurred Tuesday or Wednesday and was reported to a U.S. consular officer in Baghdad by a friend of the wounded man.
Confirmation of the shooting, first reported unofficially Wednesday night, came as the State Department announced that more than 150 of the approximately 2,500 Americans now estimated to be in Kuwait and Iraq have left on charter flights. It said an unspecified additional number of Americans -- apparently women, children and people with medical problems -- are expected to leave today on an Iraqi Airways jet chartered by the U.S. government. However, it left unclear whether this will be the start of a series of evacuation flights.
State Department spokesman Mark Dillen said that Iraqi officials, after initially disclaiming knowledge of the shooting in Kuwait, admitted yesterday that the wounded man was in custody and would be allowed to see a U.S. Embassy representative from Baghdad after his expected release today from a hospital. Dillen said the injured man's family in the United States had been informed, but he said the Privacy Act barred identifying the victim.
Naji Hadithi, director general of Iraq's Information Ministry, announced that the American "was inadvertently wounded, and the wound is a very slight wound," Washington Post correspondent Edward Cody reported from Baghdad. Hadithi made his statement to U.S. television crews, indicating that the Iraqi government was eager to tell the Bush administration and the American public quickly that it considered the shooting an accident and that it did not cause serious injury.
"This is outrageous behavior," Dillen said. "Reports that Iraqi soldiers are using live fire in their efforts to round up foreigners are extremely disturbing, and yet another indication of the lengths to which the Iraqis are willing to go to carry out their inhumane policy of using innocent foreigners as shields while denying them the right to leave."
He said a U.S. demand for "a full accounting of this incident" had been lodged with both the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad and the Iraqi ambassador here, Mohamed Mashat.
According to Dillen, the wounded man's friend said Iraqi soldiers had come to their apartment building and began knocking on doors to determine the identity of residents. Dillen added, "Apparently in an attempt to evade capture, the American tried to climb out of the window of his apartment. The Iraqis shot and hit him in the forearm. There is no word on any other injuries."
After accompanying the wounded man to a hospital, the friend was taken from Kuwait to Baghdad and lodged in the Mansour Melia Hotel where other Americans are being held, Dillen said. There he managed to tell a U.S. consular officer about his wounded friend who had been left in Kuwait.
Dillen said that when the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait -- which Iraq has not recognized since ordering it closed Aug. 24 -- contacted the hospital, it was told that the American had been moved to another medical facility. "Hospital officials there disavowed any knowledge of the incident or of his being at the hospital," and it was not until yesterday that the Iraqis acknowledged that they had the man, Dillen added.
Iraq's Hadithi specified that consular access would be granted only to officials from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. This apparently was intended to bolster Baghdad's insistence that Kuwait is now a permanent part of Iraq, a contention rejected by the United States.
Asked why U.S. diplomats in Kuwait could not visit the wounded American, Hadithi replied, "There are no embassies in Kuwait. The American Embassy is in the capital, in Baghdad."
Dillen said that 12 Americans who had been detained in Kuwait and Iraq were aboard a Canadian-chartered Iraqi Airways jet that flew to Ankara, Turkey, yesterday. The United States, he said, has reached agreement with Baghdad for a similar charter that is expected to leave today. He said the plane will be "a standard-size commercial aircraft smaller than a 747," so he did not know how many passengers it will carry. Cody reported from Baghdad that 175 women and children are expected to be on the flight.
The United States was forced to charter an Iraqi plane because Baghdad has refused entry to aircraft from countries such as the United States honoring the U.N. trade embargo against Iraq. Since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government claims that Kuwait now is a province of Iraq, Baghdad's refusal to deal with the beleaguered embassies of the United States and other countries in Kuwait has caused major problems in processing exit permits for the thousands of foreign nationals trying to leave.
To get around that problem, Dillen said, the United States has agreed to have today's charter fly from Baghdad to Kuwait City to pick up passengers. It then will return to Baghdad where the exit permits for those on board are to be processed at planeside. Only then will the plane be allowed to leave for Amman, Jordan.
Dillen hedged answers about whether further such flights are planned. "There is nothing specific as regards how many per day or how many additional flights there might be," he said. Other U.S. officials said the United States hopes to keep the charters going until all Americans able to leave are out. But one official said, "We're taking it one day at a time."
Because Iraq has moved a number of Americans to strategic sites as a shield against bombing attacks, most U.S. citizens in Kuwait and Iraq -- particularly men -- have been lying low, seeking to avoid detection. That has raised questions about how many actually will come forward to take advantage of the charter flights.
Dillen said that in an effort to overcome uncertain communications, the U.S. government is broadcasting constantly updated messages over the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corp. telling Americans about the charter flight plans, advising them to stay in close touch with the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait and giving out phone numbers they can call for further information.
"I would envision that we would have a better gauge of how many American citizens would be participating in this evacuation shortly after we are able to actually begin these flights," Dillen said.
News services reported the following from Jordan:
Cries for help by tens of thousands of hungry Asians stranded in Jordan after fleeing Iraq and Kuwait drew new pledges of assistance by other nations, but there was concern that the aid could be delayed.
Nearly 20,000 refugees cross into Jordan every day, but only half that number are now able to leave daily, reported the official Jordanian news agency Petra. Jordan says there are 105,000 refugees in the country, including 86,000 in about 17 camps, out of a total of 605,000 who have flooded through the country since Aug. 2.
The International Organization for Migration announced today that it will begin an airlift to evacuate 19,000 people over the next two weeks. It said it planned 72 flights at a cost of about $12 million.
Meanwhile, doctors at camps at the Jordan-Iraq border, where 50-mph sandstorms today swept refugees sitting in the open in the 104-degree heat, said about 1,500 people a day are being treated for illness and injuries, including 50 to 100 scorpion bites and "a few snake bites," none of them fatal. Scattered fights, stonings and stabbings have been reported, many of them touched off by scuffles for food and water, officials said.