Diplomatic sources said Secretary of State James Baker is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia to obtain permission for a military strike against Iraq if that option is deemed necessary, while Defense Secretary Dick Cheney confirmed the present U.S. force in the desert may be increased by 100,000 troops.

The sources said Thursday the latest decision regarding Baker is a strong signal to Iraq that the United States is deadly serious about its stand that Saddam Hussein must unconditionally withdraw his troops from Kuwait.Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, met with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Robert Kimmitt and the State Department's top expert on counter-terrorism, Morris Busbie.

As he left, Bandar said: "The question of war and peace is in the hands of Saddam Hussein."

Meanwhile, Saddam said Thursday that some 700 Bulgarian hostages can leave Iraq. The decision came in a joint communique issued after talks with Bulgaria's visiting vice president, Baghdad Radio said.

"All Bulgarians in Iraq can now leave the country freely," the state-owned radio said. There was no explanation why the Bulgarians were allowed to leave.

Nine of the 14 Americans released by Iraq this week arrived at Dulles International Airport outside Washington Thursday evening. The other five had arrived in New York Wednesday, the same day 40 British captives celebrated their own arrival in London.

Officials at Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport said 25 Portuguese hostages arrived in the French capital from Baghdad by way of Jordan Thursday.

Some 330 French hostages also were expected to leave Iraq soon.

Iraq is holding some 5,000 Western hostages as human shields against Western attack. Baghdad is also preventing some 5,000 Soviet nationals from leaving the country, though neither Iraq nor the Soviet Union has classified the Soviets as hostages.

Fears about war in the gulf sent oil prices up more than $3 per barrel in the futures market Thursday. Light sweet crude rose $3.17 to $34.25 a barrel for December delivery contracts on the New York Mercantile Exchange, a key market. It was crude oil's third-biggest one-day jump in the Mideast crisis.

A senior exiled Kuwaiti government official in Cairo said up to 7,000 Kuwaiti nationals were known to have been killed or are missing in the aftermath of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.