BAGHDAD, IRAQ, OCT. 2 -- Every day, Stephen Thibeault, the assistant press and cultural attache at the U.S. Embassy here, drives to a government-run hotel, the Mansour Melia, to meet the latest batch of American hostages who have been arrested in Kuwait and are about to become "human shields" at Iraqi military and industrial facilities.

The hostages' brief stay at the Mansour Melia is the only point at which the United States has consular access to them. Thibeault, 38, registers each hostage, records medical problems and collects any letters the hostages would like sent to their families.

"What I'm doing now is a lot like social work," said Thibeault, who says he carts along piles of books from his paperback collection to give the hostages and tries to get any medications they might need.

The hostages usually are calm, Thibeault said, noting that a majority tend to be of middle age or older and to have had substantial experience working in the Middle East. Still, he said, working with them can be emotionally taxing. "The disturbing thing here is that you cannot enforce that person's rights."

Thibeault and the U.S. charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Joseph Wilson, are the U.S. point men in the international diplomatic standoff with Iraq. At least once a day, while Thibeault is visiting the hostages at the Mansour Melia, Wilson goes to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry to demand they be freed.

So it goes at America's ad-hoc embassy in the camp of the invader. The U.S. diplomatic mission in Baghdad has dropped many of its normal functions to become a social-service agency, a press center, a prison.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait two months ago, the relatively small mission of 25 diplomats and staff here hunkered down for a storm. With memories strong of U.S. missions stormed in Tehran, burned in Islamabad and bombed in Beirut, the embassy here sent home staff family members and nonessential diplomatic personnel. The agricultural and commercial offices emptied, the cultural center shut, English classes for Iraqis were canceled.

As the U.S.-Iraqi confrontation sharpened, staffers shredded sensitive documents and destroyed passport-making equipment. The six Marine embassy guards smashed and bent their weapons, which would be useless against a mob anyway, and joined the evacuation, leaving security to the mission's Iraqi watchmen.

But on Aug. 23, when the United States tried to pull out the bulk of its embassy personnel in Kuwait, Iraq revoked its assurance that they could leave, trapping 54 more diplomats and embassy staff members in Baghdad. Now, crammed with more than twice its normal staff and operating without most of its sensitive equipment and source material, the Baghdad embassy is struggling to help manage the most serious U.S. foreign-policy crisis in years.

The embassy, a cluster of nondescript stucco buildings encircled by a stone wall in a residential neighborhood near the Tigris River, houses a jury-rigged operation these days.

The mission's small motor pool -- expanded by the addition of vehicles from the Kuwait embassy -- is being maintained by engineers among the 20 to 30 American civilians who have sought asylum at the embassy's premises now that the regular mechanics have left.

Kuwait-based diplomatic staff have pressed tightly into embassy offices to buttress the mission's main effort of the moment -- to track, help and free the 130 to 140 Americans -- including themselves -- who are being detained against their will in the country. They watch Iraqi television and consult with other diplomatic missions for any news of the 101 known American hostages being held by the government as "human shields" against attack by U.S.-led multinational forces in the region.

It was this group of diplomats that last month organized the evacuation from Kuwait of 1,900 Americans via charter flights. "We ran a pretty good airline," said one embassy official, recalling endless days of checking citizenship documents and tickets and shuttling busloads of passengers.

Both Thibeault and Wilson displayed exasperation last week with Iraq's justifications for its actions. During a protest demonstration outside the embassy, an almost daily event, Thibeault emerged to debate the protesters briefly in Arabic, asking why, if Kuwait had always been a part of Iraq, the Iraqi government had for so long recognized it as independent. And after Iraq delivered a note to embassies here that appeared to imply a threat of capital punishment for staffers, Wilson showed up at a press briefing wearing a noose around his neck -- to show disdain, he said.

For the 54 diplomats and staff members from the Kuwait embassy, the chief sources of frustration are boredom, uncertainty about their future and the cramped living conditions. The Iraqi government permits them to move around Baghdad and has not challenged their diplomatic immunity, but, as one diplomat here put it: "Iraq broke its promise to let them leave, and you can't blithely assume that {the government} will not change any other rule when it suits them."

With the Iraqi government having given some signals last month that food might be cut off to foreigners, the state of the mission's larder has become a concern. Embassy officials would not comment on how much food they have on hand, but a mission source said they have been able to buy even scarce supplies on the open market to replenish stocks.