BAGHDAD, IRAQ, SEPT. 7 -- Opening what U.S. officials hope will be an air bridge of daily flights, a chartered jet lifted about 165 Americans, nearly all of them women and children, to freedom today after more than a month of terror hiding from Iraqi occupation troops in Kuwait.
"It was hell," said Magdalena Santana, 26, of Miami, who flew out with her three children and was interviewed during a stopover here.
The Iraqi Airways Boeing 707 touched down in Baghdad for 90 minutes while Iraqi immigration authorities checked passports and travel documents, then flew to Amman, Jordan, where the evacuees were scheduled to catch flights to destinations in the United States. A second flight, also via Baghdad at Iraqi insistence, has been contracted for Saturday in a series of airlifts that U.S. officials expect to take a number of days.
Today's flight, which took place after a week of negotiations with Iraqi officials here and organization by the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, marked a step toward easing one of the most acrimonious issues dividing the United States and Baghdad in a crisis that has gripped the Persian Gulf region since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2. It came one day after the Iraqi government called the shooting of a fleeing U.S. citizen in Kuwait an accident.
In addition to the 165 Americans, the flight carried on its Baghdad-to-Amman leg a British youth who turns 18 years old on Sunday and would thus have become subject to Iraqi detention. There was a handful of other foreigners on the flight as well. Some of the men aboard were Arab-American; the Reuter news agency reported that there were two American men on the flight, one elderly and one ill.
About 1,200 American women and children and about 1,000 American men remain in Kuwait, most of them in hiding. The U.S. Embassy there is surrounded by Iraqi soldiers, with nine diplomats trapped inside and, according to reports here, with food and water running low.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has authorized only women and children to leave. The foreign men here and in Kuwait remain subject to seizure for use as human shields at strategic sites such as military bases or oil installations. An unknown number of men, including about 75 U.S. citizens, already have been taken to such locations.
Having annexed Kuwait, Iraq has declared the U.S. and other embassies there closed, asserting that diplomats inside have lost the immunity accorded them by international law and practice. As a result, Saddam's government has warned that U.S. Ambassador W. Nathaniel Howell and the men on his staff also could be used as human shields when they are finally forced to leave.
This could become a dangerous moment in the gulf confrontation, in the view of diplomats here. But in what is being interpreted as a favorable precedent, Iraqi military authorities recently allowed the Turkish ambassador and his staff as well as the East German ambassador to leave Kuwait after abandoning their embassies. The Turkish envoy was allowed to continue to Ankara, and the German was turned over to the East German Embassy in Baghdad.
Santana, who lived in an apartment with her Kuwaiti husband and their children, described a capital in which Iraqi soldiers use arbitrary force and where gunfire between the occupation forces and small bands of Kuwaiti youths seeking to mount a resistance frequently can be heard.
"This is a place where you can be in your car and someone comes up and says, 'Give me the car,' " she told reporters.
Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait have looted a number of cars, according to fleeing residents passing through here. Two days ago, the government decreed that Iraqis caught here trying to sell cars with Kuwaiti registry would be subject to arrest and life prison terms.
In the center of Kuwait City, resistance fighters move from home to home to find shelter, Santana said, despite Iraqi warnings that those who harbor resistance members or fleeing foreigners will be executed. Judging from her comments and those of other fleeing U.S. and British women, Kuwaiti youths have mounted sniping attacks against patrols and vehicles, particularly in the city center, while in some outlying residential areas, the situation has become generally calm.
"They come to your home and say, 'We have to stay here,' so you hide them in your home," she said of her mostly Kuwaiti neighborhood.
Santana's 16-year-old brother-in-law was shot and wounded as he and a band of friends tried to attach a Kuwaiti flag to electric power lines over the street, she said. The boy is still in the hospital, and one of his friends was killed in the shooting, she added.
"Soldiers ran into the block and started shooting at the kids," she recalled. "That was it. He landed on my doorstep, shot in the neck."
Some Iraqi tanks have fired point-blank into houses and set them afire in apparent retaliation for acts of resistance, she said.
A woman who identified herself only as Cindy said she and several friends dyed their blond hair dark to enable them to move about the streets under traditional Moslem veils without being identified. She said many American families switched hiding places repeatedly to stay ahead of Iraqi soldiers searching for hostages.
"People are going to different places all the time," she said, "from one house to another. You move from area to area."
U.S. Embassy officials contacted American families by telephone to notify them who was eligible to go on the first day's flight, several women said. Similarly, other families have been notified that they are eligible to leave on Saturday's flight or those in the days ahead.
"There are a lot of people staying with their families," Cindy added. "They don't want to leave. It's a hard decision to make."
Judy Evans, 41, of Pensacola, Fla., said that at first she remained in the Japanese Embassy, where she worked. When she had to leave, she said, she switched hiding places three times to avoid detection.
Her husband, who is Syrian, sent their four children out of Kuwait soon after the invasion with his brother, she said. Most of the women transported out today are married to Kuwaiti or other Arab nationals, as are many of the American women remaining in Kuwait.
Reports gathered here have indicated, however, that some American women have been reluctant to come out of hiding for fear of betraying their American husbands' whereabouts to Iraqi soldiers.