The remaining staff of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, after a four-month ordeal at the besieged diplomatic mission, arrived at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday afternoon on a flight carrying the last Americans to be formally evacuated from the occupied country.
In a scene that has become familiar since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began releasing American hostages, Ambassador W. Nathaniel Howell, his deputy, Barbara K. Bodine, and three other aides came home to emotional reunions with family members who waved balloons and flags on the wind-swept tarmac.
After fairly skipping down the stairs of a camouflage-painted military C-5B transport plane onto a red carpet and making his way through a receiving line that included the secretary of state, a smiling and healthy-looking Howell said he was glad to be home.
Howell, who had been scheduled to complete his tour of duty in Kuwait in September, added that he was proud the embassy had been able to remain open and coordinate the evacuation of Americans.
"Yesterday morning I locked the door of the embassy with the garrison flag still flying proudly in the wind," Howell said. "This embassy, which was founded as a consulate in 1951 and as an embassy in 1961, will reopen . . . . Kuwait and its people must be free."
Howell seemed pessimistic that Iraq will leave Kuwait voluntarily. "The only industry in Kuwait today is war," he said. "I left them building bunkers around the sea coast and around our embassy. I saw no indication that they planned to leave."
According to State Department officials, 48 people were aboard the flight from Frankfurt, Germany. They included 22 private U.S. citizens, some accompanied by foreign-born children or spouses, and nine U.S. government employees, including the five from the embassy in Kuwait and two diplomats from the embassy in Baghdad.
In addition, the flight carried 15 Canadians, a Norwegian and a Syrian. An estimated 500 Americans have refused offers to be transported from Kuwait or Iraq.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III greeted the ambassador, his staff and the former hostages with praise but used the opportunity to direct more tough words at Saddam.
"For the last four months, your courage has inspired all of us. Cut off from some of the most basic of human necessities, you have been victorious over an uncivilized and brutal ordeal, something really no one should ever have had to endure," Baker said. "What has been done to you and to others by a vicious and capricious dictator . . . violates all norms of international conduct and jars our sense of human decency."
In his brief remarks, Baker gave no indication that the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq, particularly the president's threat to use military force if Iraqi troops do not withdraw from Kuwait by Jan. 15, has been softened by the evacuations.
"There must be no reward to Saddam Hussein for the war he started," Baker said. "The world is determined to see this aggression reversed . . . . Ambassador Howell, you left the Amercian flag flying high over our embassy . . . . One day soon, that will fly high in a free Kuwait."
Describing the administration's policy as "moral and honorable and right," Howell said he was "pleased that we could stay" and "pleased that we could operate more than a dozen flights of American citizens."
He thanked "the many people who made it possible for us to stay," including the estimated 30 U.S. citizens who took refuge in the embassy and helped dig a well, make telephone calls and perform other tasks.
"It was not an American effort alone. Many of our friends from Europe and North America . . . worked together to make it possible," Howell added.
Compared with other arrivals of Americans evacuated from the Middle East, some of which involved flights carrying at least 120 people, yesterday's final homecoming was relatively intimate and subdued. Unlike before, relatives were permitted to meet each other near the plane instead of at separate processing centers.
Although all the former detainees passed calmly through the receiving line, at least one embassy staff member briefly lost her sense of diplomatic decorum as soon as she stepped through the line, racing into a loved one's arms and receiving a bouquet of long-stemmed roses.
The government personnel were taken directly to the State Department to determine whether they needed money, accommodations or airline tickets. The rest of the passengers were processed at Andrews before being allowed to depart with friends or family members or be bused to area hotels.