The Soviet Union would not hesitate to use military force to protect its 3,300 nationals held in Iraq, officials said Friday, edging away from their previous refusal to send troops to the region.

"Everybody should know that we will not hesitate to use force to protect our citizens," Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze told the official Tass news agency."It's high time to end inaction in situations when human life, dignity and fate become expendable currency in an immoral political game," he said in an interview in New York.

The Kremlin has said Iraq would face "serious consequences" if Soviet citizens were harmed. But until now, it had not said specifically that its response could include military force.