Iraq struck a conciliatory stance on Saturday, freeing four American hostages and three captured French soldiers and promising to release more Europeans. Baghdad also indicated it was working on a new peace plan.
On Saturday, Iraq's parliament voted to let the 700 Bulgarians remaining in Iraq and Kuwait leave. Also Saturday, the official Iraqi News Agency said European contract workers stranded by Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait now could leave if they wished.Secretary of State James A. Baker III, meanwhile, began a mission aimed at breaking the 3-month-old Persian Gulf standoff. He said he would "lay the foundation" for military action against Iraq if economic measures fail to persuade President Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait.
Saddam presided over a meeting of top-echelon officials and army commanders Saturday to discuss military operations in southern Iraq, INA said. It gave no details on that gathering.
The freed Americans and French soldiers arrived in Jordan aboard the same Iraqi Airways flight from Baghdad. At the Amman airport, they were quickly hustled away by U.S. and French officials.
The Americans did not speak to reporters except to say they were tired. Also aboard the flight were about 80 Arab nationals and three men who identified themselves as Irish but did not give their names.
French Embassy officials said the soldiers were to leave for home late Saturday. The Americans were to fly home Sunday.
One of the Americans, Randall Trinh, 49, of Hacienda Heights, Calif., was among the hundreds of foreigners kept at strategic sites as "human shields" against potential attack following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
The other Americans were identified as Dr. Abdul Kangi, 50, an Indian-born American from Glencoe, Ill.; Raymond Gales, a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait; and Michael Barner, 49, of Woodsworth, La.
Iraq said the four were released as a humanitarian gesture because they were "elderly and sick." U.S. Embassy sources in Baghdad said Trinh suffered from a stomach ulcer and Barner had a neurological disorder.
Iraq has launched a public-relations offensive regarding treatment of its foreign "guests," as it calls the hostages.
It said Saturday it would install international telephone lines at strategic sites where captives are held so they can talk to their families. Last week, Iraq offered to allow hostages' relatives to visit them at Christmas.
Iraqi officials have expressed fears the United States will use reports of maltreatment of captives as a pretext for a military strike.
Western leaders called the selective release of groups of hostages an effort by Saddam to split their alliance.
On his U.S. jet, Baker told reporters he planned to consult over eight days in seven countries with leaders of a wide array of Arab and European nations, including a Moscow stop Thursday to see Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
He said, "The purpose of the trip is to discuss strengthening the full range of measures that we have employed to isolate Saddam . . . political measures, economic measures and military measures, and thereby to lay the foundation for the possible exercise of all options."
His plane landed at Shannon, Ireland, for refueling before continuing a journey that will include Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Britain and France and a meeting in Cairo with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.
Also in the region was French President Francois Mitterrand, who arrived in Egypt on Saturday and scheduled a meeting Sunday with President Hosni Mubarak.
The Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, arrived in Jordan Saturday for talks with King Hussein, and a senior Jordanian official said Aziz was carrying a message from Saddam on "ways to achieve peace."
There was word of a planned Iraqi peace initiative from Irish and Italian parliamentarians, who met with the speaker of Iraq's ruling National Council. They said the Iraqi plan calls for the release of all foreigners in return for guarantees from world powers that Iraq will not be attacked.