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U.S. AGREES TO EXCLUDE ALLIES IN IRAQ TALKS

President Bush has dropped the idea of bringing allies along for Persian Gulf crisis talks with Iraq, removing the only obstacle that seemed likely to prevent high-level meetings from taking place.

Washington agreed to exclude allies, even though that undercuts the U.S. claim that the crisis is an international one, after Baghdad insisted that the Palestine Liberation Organization must be included if allies are, officials said Monday.

When Bush invited Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz to Washington and offered to send Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad, the president suggested he might invite representatives of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other U.S. allies to the Washington meeting.

But administration officials said the United States preferred bilateral talks to a meeting that would include the PLO because such a session would implicitly link the Persian Gulf crisis with the Arab-Israeli conflict -- something Washington refuses to do.

State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said the United States and Iraq agreed to exclude other countries after two weekend meetings in Baghdad between Joseph Wilson, charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy, and Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Nazir Hamdoun.

Despite the preliminary agreement on procedure, Ms. Tutwiler said, Iraq has not yet agreed to the talks. Bush suggested that Aziz come to Washington late next week and that Baker visit Baghdad sometime before Jan. 15.

Ms. Tutwiler said U.S. officials conferred with other nations in the Persian Gulf coalition before agreeing to limit the talks to the two nations.

About 88 Americans remain hostage in Iraq after the release of 15 others over the weekend, Ms. Tutwiler said. The 15 Americans, all of whom had been held as "human shields" at strategic sites in Iraq, left the country in the company of former boxing champion Mohammad Ali.

Ms. Tutwiler said that 10 of the 15 people who flew out of Baghdad Saturday had special medical conditions. Once in Amman, Jordan, the group broke up, with six arriving in New York today.

Ms. Tutwiler said six Americans in Baghdad are visited regularly at the Mansour Melia Hotel by U.S. Embassy officials.

She said the United States has not received any additional information about Americans in Kuwait being rounded up but said house-to-house searches in Kuwait continue.

Iraq said today it will let nearly 3,300 Soviet experts leave the country, but it demanded that the Kremlin pay to terminate their work contracts.

The British Foreign Office said today that Iraq sent Britain a $289,000 hotel bill to pay for 27 British construction workers it is holding at two five-star Baghdad hotels. The British Embassy in Baghdad will pick up the tab, a Foreign Office spokesman said, but claim that money back from Iraq after the crisis ends.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats, who have urged the Bush administration to have patience, were not deterred by the testimony Monday before the Senate Armed Services Committee of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The two men struck a pessimistic tone, saying that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could survive the international sanctions imposed after his forces invaded oil-rich Kuwait Aug. 2.

"We should be patient in applying military force, . . . We should give sanctions an opportunity to weaken Saddam Hussein so that if it becomes necessary to use the option of military force, we will have perhaps saved some lives of American boys," said Sen. Robert C. q talksByrd, D-W.Va.

The ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John Warner of Virginia, said in an interview later in the day that Cheney and Powell "put in balance clearly the testimony of the witnesses of the previous week."

Several of the panel's Democrats, including Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia, contended that the administration seemed to be dismissing sanctions too easily.

"If we go to war, we never will know whether they would have worked," Nunn said.

Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, voiced misgivings about a "Chicken Little approach to our policy. The sky is falling and the only option is war."

Because of the possibility of war, U.S. officials are considering a stronger travel warning for Americans in Saudi Arabia and contemplating a reduction in embassy staffs throughout the Middle East in areas where there might be popular opposition to a military conflict with Iraq.

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