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The Iraqi parliament Friday overwhelmingly endorsed Saddam Hussein's decision to free thousands of Western hostages, meaning the 900 Americans held captive in Iraq and Kuwait might be home for Christmas.The more than 8,000 Westerners, East Europeans and Japanese stranded in Iraq will be allowed to leave beginning Saturday, Iraqi officials said.
Iraq said the hostages could start applying for exit visas immediately. It said they would be flown on special Iraqi Airways flights to Amman, Jordan.
Despite the conciliatory move, U.S. officials said Iraq has sent 30,000 fresh troops to the Arabian desert in recent days, indicating Baghdad has no intention of abandoning Kuwait, which it invaded on Aug. 2.
Pentagon spokesman Bob Hall said the troop reinforcements brought the Iraqi buildup in Kuwait and southern Iraq to 480,000 soldiers.
An additional 10,000 U.S. troops also have arrived in the Persian Gulf, Hall said. The 350,000-strong multinational force now includes about 250,000 Americans, most of them dug into the Saudi Arabian desert.
President Bush has said 440,000 American soldiers will be in the gulf by mid-January. The U.N. resolution approved last week authorizes the use of force to drive Iraq from Kuwait if Baghdad has not withdrawn by Jan. 15.
Saddam on Thursday instructed his rubber-stamp parliament to free the captives, saying he no longer needed them to deter attack. He said his troops were fully deployed in Kuwait, seized in a dispute over oil, land and money.
"Iraqi armed forces should maintain the highest degree of alert and vigilance," Saddam said, "because the forces of aggression remain on our sacred soil in Saudi Arabia, fanning the flames of fire."
Bush welcomed the decision to free Americans and other foreigners in Kuwait and Iraq but said the United States must still demand withdrawal.
"We've got to continue to keep the pressure on," he said.
In Saudi Arabia, U.S. troops also had a message for Saddam: It's great the hostages may be home for Christmas, but the soldiers are not prepared to go home until Kuwait is free.
Iraq's National Assembly has no record of vetoing decisions by Saddam, but reporters Friday counted 18 of 250 delegates voting against Saddam's request. The assembly speaker, Sadi Mehdi Saleh, said he counted only 15 hands.
"Definitely, we would like to see everyone with his family by Christmas, because that is a very joyous and happy occasion, and it is time for family reunions," said Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdul Amir al-Anbari.
Among the foreigners who have been barred from leaving Iraq are about 90 Americans and hundreds of others held as "human shields" at military and other strategic sites. Many more have remained in hiding.
In a message for broadcast to the region over Voice of America, the U.S. State Department on Thursday acknowledged Iraq's announced intention to release all foreigners. Until the Iraqi government made clear how such releases take place, the message cautioned, "Stay where you are, stay in touch with the U.S. Embassy and monitor the VOA closely. We will let you know as soon as we have more information."
Bush, who is touring South America, dismissed a U.N. proposal circulating Thursday for a Middle East peace conference, renewing his rejection of Saddam's attempt to link resolution of the crisis with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
U.N. Security Council ambassadors discussed a draft resolution that approves a world conference on the Palestinian prob-lem.
The timing of the resolution promised to complicate U.S.-Israeli relations with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir arriving in the United States Friday. He was to meet Bush on Tuesday. Shamir said in London, "Israel will not agree to any foreign body deciding its future and fate."
The draft resolution has already been approved in principle by the permanent five Security Council members - the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China.
It marks the first time that the United States has let the council consider an initiative for a peace conference.