AMMAN, JORDAN, NOV. 3 -- Iraqi authorities indicated today they might offer to release all the Western and Japanese hostages being held in Iraq in return for a declaration of non-belligerency by two states from a list of five.
This was the second hint in as many weeks that Iraq would free the nearly 2,000 hostages if it received guarantees it would not be attacked.
The speaker of Iraq's National Assembly, Saadi Mahdi Saleh, said the holding of Westerners and Japanese as human shields had served its purpose and that all might now be released on certain conditions. He told journalists that two plans were under consideration for the possible release of the hostages.
One plan would require the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, France and China -- to renounce the threat of military action against Iraq.
But given the unlikelihood of such action, the Iraqi official suggested an alternative plan that would exclude the United States and Britain and hinge on guarantees against attack from two of five countries -- the Soviet Union, France, China, Germany and Japan.
The Iraqi leadership previously offered to free hostages subject to a pledge of non-aggression from the United States. The offer has been spurned by U.S. officials who continue to insist -- along with the rest of the U.N. Security Council -- on Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait and the restoration of Kuwait's legitimate government.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III said he would "wait and see" whether Iraq's revised offer today was serious, staff writer David Hoffman reported from Baker's plane en route to the gulf region.
In a separate statement today, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said European contract workers detained in Iraq would be permitted to leave, according to the official Iraqi News Agency. The agency did not specify how many workers or which nationalities would be affected.
Iraq's latest initiatives coincided with stepped-up efforts by Japan and some European states to accelerate the pace of hostage releases through private channels.
Former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone arrived in Baghdad tonight to seek the release of 139 Japanese. Nakasone's chartered Boeing 747 is carrying six tons of food, clothing, medicine, books, letters and personal effects for Japanese hostages.
Former West German chancellor Willy Brandt said he would go to Baghdad Monday on a private peace mission. Iraq holds 400 Germans hostage.
Iraq freed four American men, saying they were ill, as what it called a humanitarian gesture. The men arrived at Amman's airport tonight with two delegates from a private group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The four Americans were Dr. Abdul Kanji, 50, an Indian-born American from Glencoe, Ill.; Raymond Gales, a diplomat from the besieged embassy in Kuwait; Michael Barmer, 49, of Alexandria, La; and Randall Trinh, 49 of Hacienda Heights, Calif. Asked what was the worst part of his stay, Barmer just pointed to his head: "The mind." He told reporters at the airport he had no idea why he had been freed.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation representatives, Tareq Heneidy and Bishop Michael Kenny, said they had spent two weeks with Americans held hostage in Baghdad but were denied permission to visit others held at strategic installations for what they were told were "security reasons." Asked how those they met were doing, Heneidy said, "When you deprive people of their freedom, its something pretty humiliating."
Kenny said the men held in Baghdad were making the best of their situation. "They are not very demoralized. I guess I can say they are doing pretty well. Let me be patriotic and say they are Americans."
The four Americans looked tired from the journey. Trinh, who suffers from stomach ulcers, was led by the arm by an embassy official who kept reporters away. Gales hid his face from the cameras.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has presented Iraqi authorities with a list of 69 American men -- from the 104 known to be held at strategic sites as human shields -- who it says should be freed on humanitarian or medical grounds. It was not immediately clear whether the men freed today had been on the list.
Recent reports of deteriorating living conditions at the sites where Americans and other captives are being held have raised concern about their well-being. The men are said to be sleeping in underground warehouses, on hard floors and beside engines, with scarce food or warm clothing.