CARACAS, VENEZUELA, DEC. 8 -- President Bush said today the promised release of all hostages held by Iraq and the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait make it easier to go to war against Iraq, asserting that with Americans safely out of the region, "that's just one less worry I've got."

Bush said that, despite Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's decision to release all foreign hostages, "I don't feel we are closer to a peaceful solution" because there is no evidence that Saddam is ready to comply fully with U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.

The president said the U.S. decision Friday to abandon its embassy in Kuwait once all American hostages have been freed does not represent an olive branch to Saddam.

"I think you can make the case that this facilitates the tough decisions that might lie ahead," he said.

Asked to elaborate, he added, "I just mean that when you don't have Americans there, and if force is required, that's just one less worry I've got. I have said from the very beginning that this cruel policy of taking hostages and holding them in hopes that that will change the policy of this alliance is fruitless. But I am very glad that these people are coming out."

In an interview today on Cable News Network's "Newsmaker Saturday," White House national security adviser Brent Scowcroft denied a suggestion that Bush's tough language could jeopardize the release of the hostages, saying: "I think the greater danger is that he {Saddam} may interpret our statement about closing the embassy {in Kuwait} if all of the American hostages are released as a conciliatory gesture which somehow relieves the pressure on him and indicates we're prepared for indefinite negotiations."

He added, "It seems to me that what {Bush} is saying is, don't take this move on our part as . . . a conciliatory gesture to what you've done on hostages."

Scowcroft also sought to play down fears that the administration is seeking a military showdown. "We're not on a war strategy," Scowcroft said. "What we are trying to do is to convince {Saddam} of the mass arrayed against him, and what he faces if he will not comply with the United Nations." But he reiterated the administration's position that if Iraq must be removed from Kuwait by force, "it will be massive, it will be sudden and, I hope, mercifully swift."

The president's strong language, which came as he wrapped up a five-nation Latin American tour, signaled the administration's determination to maintain pressure on Saddam at a time when administration officials believe the Iraqi leader is bidding for international sympathy and maneuvering for a negotiated settlement that might fall short of unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.

Bush's threat of war was another step in the campaign he and top administration officials have waged over the past week to hold together the international coalition and persuade Saddam that the United States and other nations are prepared to implement a U.N. resolution calling for Saddam to withdraw by Jan. 15 or face military action.

If Saddam complies fully with those resolutions, however, administration officials have made clear they are prepared for steps that could provide the Iraqi leader some face-saving concessions, including eventually convening an international conference to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

"There is no payback," Bush said about Friday's decision to shut down the beleaguered embassy in Kuwait and withdraw the diplomats who have resourcefully maintained themselves despite having their power and water supplies shut off in late August.

"There is no change in my determination to get Saddam out of Kuwait in compliance with the United Nations resolutions," he added.

Bush flatly dismissed the idea of offering Saddam concessions for letting the hostages go. "When you kidnap somebody, you should not expect a reward when you let the person go," he said.

The president added that he remains troubled by Saddam's rigid opposition to withdrawing his forces from Kuwait. The reason he sees no greater hope for a peaceful solution to the four-month crisis "is because Saddam Hussein continues insisting that Kuwait is a province of Iraq and that he will not get out of Kuwait."

Bush spoke at a joint press conference with Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez in the courtyard of the presidential palace. Earlier today he met privately with Perez to discuss Venezuela's decision to increase its oil production to help offset the international boycott of crude from Iraq and Kuwait, as well as trade and economic development in Latin America.

Perez praised Bush for what he called a prudent decision to open direct talks with Baghdad before the United Nations' Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to get out of Kuwait. Bush is expected to meet with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Washington about Dec. 17 and Secretary of State James A. Baker III will meet later with Saddam in Baghdad.

A new diplomatic stumbling block emerged today when Iraq rejected the U.S.-proposed dates of Dec. 20, 21 or 22 or Jan. 3 for Baker's visit to Baghdad. Iraq wants to push Baker's visit back to Jan. 12 -- only three days before the withdrawal deadline.

Iraq's proposed date "is just another ploy that {Saddam is} trying to use to drag things out and to avoid . . . seriously facing up to what the world community is demanding that he do," Scowcroft told CNN.

The State Department said Friday that no date will be set for Aziz's visit until both sides agree on the date for Baker's trip to Baghdad.

Commenting on the Iraqi invasion, Perez said that smaller nations such as Venezuela cannot accept the idea of larger nations wiping out their smaller neighbors. "We are therefore automatically in favor of the restoration of freedom and sovereignty to Kuwait," he said.

As Bush listened to the English translation, he turned to the Venezuelan leader and said, "Good answer."

Bush left Venezuela after a speech to the chamber of commerce and flew back to Washington, where he is now expected to stay until the Jan. 15 deadline passes.