The United States announced yesterday it will evacuate all diplomats from its besieged embassy in Kuwait once all Americans who want to leave Kuwait are permitted to depart.

The decision marks a reversal from earlier statements that U.S. diplomats would remain in place to defy the occupying Iraqis. Senior officials said Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's decision to free the approximately 750 Americans in Iraq and Kuwait, including those held as "human shields" at strategic Iraqi military sites, had changed the situation and provided an opening to evacuate the diplomats.

White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater told reporters traveling with President Bush in Caracas, Venezuela, that the decision to evacuate was made because "we think we've made the political point that they had no right to take it {Kuwait} over." He added that the diplomats there had "performed courageously" and "deserve to be taken out."

Fitzwater said the facility would be kept open "in a technical sense" and that moving out its occupants does not weaken the United Nations demand that the embassy be allowed to remain open.

State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said the embassy will be considered officially open, although unstaffed. Iraq has been asked to safeguard the complex, she added, and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz responded in a television interview last night that "there would be no problem with that."

Tutwiler said arrangements remain incomplete for the planned exchange of foreign ministers with Iraq. She said the United States was unwilling to agree to a date for Aziz to come to Washington and see Bush until Iraq had agreed to a date for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to go to Baghdad to meet with Saddam. She said Iraq had proposed Aziz come to the White House on Dec. 17, but the United States had not yet consented.

Aziz said in an interview on ABC's "Nightline" that the State Department had proposed he come to Washington Dec. 20-22 and that Baker go to Iraq Jan. 3. Aziz said Iraq would have a response soon.

Ambassador W. Nathaniel Howell and seven embassy employees in Kuwait are down to about a week's supply of food and have been struggling with a lack of electricity and little water, officials said.

Tutwiler said the diplomats would remain accredited to Kuwait. The Kuwaiti government is in exile in Taif, Saudi Arabia.

Tutwiler said that because the Kuwait embassy's lone function has been to keep in touch with Americans, there would be no point keeping the staff there under hardship conditions if the remaining Americans leave Kuwait. "If all Americans there leave, surely you're not suggesting they stay there and do business with the Iraqi occupying forces," Tutwiler said.

A senior official added that the prospect of combat in Kuwait was another factor. "If force is used, there are eight U.S. government employees there. We're not just going to let them be bombed to death," this official said.

Before Saddam's decision to release Americans, the embassy had been a symbol of American resolve. Baker told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council Oct. 29 that the embassy employees "continue to fight back. They are not giving in, and of course, neither will we."

On Oct. 24, the State Department announced that embassy employees had openly washed their cars with the brackish water they obtained by digging a shallow well on the grounds of their compound "to show the Iraqi guards that they can manage and are very resourceful."

Bush has repeatedly criticized Saddam for cutting off electricity and water to the embassy, saying that even Hitler had respected the sanctity of diplomatic outposts.

Iraq, after it invaded Kuwait Aug. 2, attempted to force the closure of embassies in Kuwait, which Saddam said had ceased to exist as a separate country and had been incorporated into Iraq.

Only the Americans and two British diplomats have remained. The Foreign Office in London said the two British diplomats would remain regardless of the American withdrawal.

At one point in the crisis, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution calling on Iraq to respect the embassies and allow them to be resupplied. However, officials have said the idea of a resupply mission turned out to be impractical, and they said they did not want the embassy to become a flashpoint for war.

For the first time yesterday, the State Department provided an estimate of the number of Americans in Iraq and Kuwait, which Tutwiler put at 750. However, she said there are some American citizens with Arab citizenship who previously declined to leave and may want to remain.

Tutwiler said the top U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, Joseph C. Wilson IV, asked Iraqi officials yesterday to release the Americans immediately, particularly those in Baghdad, including hostages at a hotel there, former Kuwait embassy employees now in the Baghdad mission and private citizens.

Wilson asked that they be allowed to go to the airport immediately but was told he would have to wait until today for an answer.

Tutwiler, releasing details of Wilson's instructions, said he told Iraqi officials that the United States is prepared to charter Iraqi airliners, as it has previously, to fly Americans from Kuwait to Baghdad and then to Europe, beginning today. Wilson said the United States also is prepared to bring in its own aircraft.

Wilson urged Iraqi authorities to dispense with exit visas and other formalities, to let some more Americans in to help with the evacuation and to restore electricity and water to the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. But "we have no responses" to Wilson's requests, Tutwiler said.

Aziz said on ABC last night that the arrangements for the departure of Americans "won't take a long time."

Staff writers Dan Balz in Caracas and Al Kamen in Washington and researcher Bruce Brown in Washington contributed to this report.