The White House said Tuesday that Thursday's evacuation flight of Americans from Iraq and Kuwait is "likely to be the last" and will probably also carry home the remaining staff of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait.
"We would anticipate that once all Americans who want out have been able to get out that we would remove the entire staff of the embassy," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.He spoke as a second plane-load of Americans left Iraq bound for Frankfurt, Germany.
Meanwhile, those who came back to the United States on Monday said they were relieved to be free after more than four frightening, boring and unpleasant months as captives.
"It feels absolutely great," Jack Rinehart, 37, of Stover, Mo., said several hours after he and more than 150 Americans landed at nearby Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on a chartered Pan Am jumbo jet.
"It's great to be back," said Dwight Durmon of Fayetteville, Tenn., as he clutched the hand of his wife, Cathy.
At the White House Tuesday, Fitzwater noted that the second planeload of Americans had left Iraq about noon. He said that those Americans would be flown back to the United States on Wednesday by military charter.
The final evacuation flight, now scheduled for Thursday, "is likely to be the last, and it is also likely to be the one to evacuate U.S. Embassy personnel from Kuwait," Fitzwater said.
While he adhered to a U.S. policy of not revealing the number inside the besieged embassy in Kuwait City, Fitzwater said, "Suf-fice it to say, it's a small group."
He said that the United States technically would consider the embassy "an active and open embassy available for work whenever we should want to do that."
But, "from a practical matter, we won't have anyone there to raise the flag," he added.
The first group of former hostages - some of whom had been held as "human shields" at strategic sites in Iraq - left Baghdad on Sunday.
They spent the night in Frankfurt, Germany, before coming to the United States. Last week, the Iraqi parliament voted to allow the 8,000 American, European and Japanese hostages to go free.
Monday's flight carried 156 people, including four Canadians. Fitzwater refused to say how many Americans remained in Iraq and Kuwait.
The ex-hostages spent the night in the capital, and some said they expected to be debriefed by U.S. officials.
Iraqi Information Minister Latif Jassim, meanwhile, denied news reports that Baghdad might withdraw from Kuwait if it can keep the southern tip of the Rumailah oil field, which extends for two miles into Kuwait. Before Iraq overran Kuwait on Aug. 2, Saddam accused Kuwait of overexploiting the field.
Iraqi sees compromise on talks
While Iraq says the hostage release does not mean it will leave Kuwait, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz said compromise could be reached on the dates for upcoming talks with the United States.
Aziz was quoted by The New York Times Tuesday as saying Saddam was reconsidering his demand that Secretary of State James A. Baker III visit on Jan. 12.
U.S. officials have said Jan. 12 would be too late because it falls three days before the deadline established by the U.N. Security Council for Iraq to quit Kuwait or face the likelihood of being attacked.
President Bush proposed the talks on Nov. 30, a day after the U.N. resolution was approved, and Aziz is to travel to Washington this month for talks with Bush.
Bush plans to have at least 400,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region by mid-January. The multinational force arrayed against Iraq also includes about 100,000 troops from other nations.
Iraqi force reported at 500,000
A Pentagon source, citing U.S. intelligence reports, said Iraqi troops in and around Kuwait have grown to about 500,000.
The Bush administration will soon ask Congress for $12 billion to $20 billion to help pay the costs of the military operations in the gulf region, congressional officials said.
One official said the administration planned to pay for the Operation Desert Shield with federal borrowing, not by raising taxes.
Even more money would be needed in case of war, which would cost from $1 billion to $2 billion daily, according to one estimate.
Sixty-one percent of Americans believe the United States will go to war with Iraq, an ABC News poll released Tuesday shows, and 58 percent of those interviewed said they would support a war if Iraq does not leave Kuwait.