BAGHDAD, SEPT. 27 -- Iraq said today that it will take no action against foreign embassies sheltering foreign citizens here and it denied that it had threatened to execute diplomats from such embassies.
Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassim accused the United States of distorting an Iraqi demand this week for information about foreigners who have been given refuge in embassies here but at the same time he described Western concern about the demand as a "misunderstanding" and implied that Iraq shared some blame for the diplomatic uproar that followed.
Iraq's Interior Ministry, meanwhile, published new legislation ordering all citizens of Kuwait to apply for Iraqi citizenship before Oct. 31. Since invading Kuwait on Aug. 2, Iraq has annexed it and declared it a province of Iraq.
The Iraqi demand for information about foreign refugees had been in a diplomatic note sent to embassies here earlier this week. In it, Iraq noted that harboring foreigners wanted by the government is considered espionage, which is punishable here by death.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III on Wednesday called the note "repugnant" and other Western countries also condemned it.
But today, Iraq summoned the chiefs of foreign missions here to say it had "no intention whatsoever to desecrate diplomatic immunity and privileges and it confirms its full respect for them," Jassim said. Iraq "does not want to take any action against diplomatic immunity," he said, adding that the death penalty for harboring foreigners applies only to Iraqi citizens.
As Jassim backed away from any suggestion of a threat to diplomats based here, he also gave signs that Iraq would not pursue aggressively -- at least for the moment -- its demand for lists of citizens taking shelter in embassies.
At the United Nations today, Baker said, "It's something they never should have issued in the first place."
Since late August, large numbers of foreign citizens subject to detention as hostages by Iraq have taken shelter at the diplomatic premises of their governments here. Between 20 and 30 Americans are said to have taken refuge in that manner here, although the U.S. Embassy does not specify the number or identify their precise location. It was not immediately clear how many citizens of other nations are taking refuge at their embassies.
Some Western residents here said they had not taken seriously the idea that the Iraqi note this week represented a real threat to the lives of diplomats, but they expressed concern that providing the names of those under asylum might risk aiding Iraq in a possible future effort to round up such people.
The U.S. Embassy accepted a number of asylum-seekers in late August, when Iraq first gave signs that it might go to hotels here to search for hostages to add to those it had begun to detain from Kuwait. Embassy personnel have told Americans here that the embassy can provide no real protection against a determined Iraqi effort to take them captive.
During the nearly eight weeks since it first detained foreigners caught in its invasion of Kuwait, the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has made several public gestures designed to offer the world an image of Iraqi generosity toward people it says it is compelled to hold as insurance against attack by the United States and its Western and Arab allies.
The Information Ministry hastily summoned foreign journalists this evening to meet Jassim. As he spoke, an aide hurriedly scribbled an English translation of the new statement for Jassim to read before television cameras.
Jassim insisted that "it is our right" to register foreigners present anywhere in Iraq and said some missions, which he did not identify, had submitted lists. But he said Iraq had no current plans for any action against such missions. Asked whether that stance was likely to change, he said, "Ask me next week."
There were suggestions within the Western community here that Washington had overreacted to the Iraqi note. One Western resident said he had not, even before today's Iraqi clarification, taken seriously the idea that the note represented a real threat to the lives of diplomats.
The resident, who asked not be identified, expressed greater concern that providing the names of those under asylum might risk aiding Iraq in a possible future effort to round them up.
Jassim also played down concerns among foreigners about an Iraqi announcement that companies would no longer be able to obtain ration coupons for their foreign workers on contract here. He said Iraq could not afford to provide scarce commodities for foreigners and said the companies should resume what he said was their earlier practice of importing food.
"There has only been rationing for one month," a Western resident said, "and it's not certain how many companies have even gotten ration cards so far. I don't know if this will be that drastic a change."