A close adviser to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev headed for Iraq Wednesday on a special Middle East mission, leaving just hours after Secretary of State James A. Baker III said world support was growing for a military strike against Iraq.

President Francois Mitterrand also flew to the region Wednesday. He will visit the French frigate Dupleix on Thursday, then travel to Saudi Arabia for talks with King Fahd and to inspect French forces.Meanwhile, Iraq freed nine Frenchmen taken hostage in the standoff caused by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2. Several thousand Westerners are being held hostage in Iraq and Kuwait, some as shields against a possible attack.

The French nationals arrived in Jordan on a regularly scheduled Iraqi Airways flight from Baghdad and were to be flown to France later Wednesday.

Mitterrand offered in a speech last week to link an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait to a broader Mideast settlement. In a speech Sunday, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein suggested France as a possible negotiating partner.

Also in the Middle East Wednesday was Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu of Japan. He was to meet Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Taha Yassin Ramadan in Jordan Thursday, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in Tokyo.

The Soviet news agency Tass announced the departure of Yevgeny Primakov, former head of the leading Soviet think tank on Middle East issues.

It said he would visit Baghdad en route to Amman, Jordan, where he would meet with King Hussein and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.

The Soviets have joined the United States in demanding that Saddam pull his troops out of Kuwait, although they have urged that no military action be taken against Iraq without U.N. authorization.

U.S. military sources in Saudi Arabia said Baghdad has strengthened its forces in southern Iraq and Kuwait and has now deployed nearly half its 1 million-man army to defend the occupied territory.

About 170,000 U.S. troops are leading a multinational force arrayed against Saddam across the border in Saudi Arabia and on ships in the region.

In New York Tuesday, Baker told a news conference that he had found a greater willingness to consider military action against Iraq "if it became necessary at an appropriate time."

But he said sentiments could change quickly, and emphasized that the Bush administration preferred a diplomatic solution.

In Los Angeles, the Simon Wiesenthal Center said Iraq built its extensive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons with the aid of more than 200 Western companies, including more than a dozen in the United States.