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BUSH SAYS RELEASE FREES U.S. HAND HOSTAGE DEPARTURE WOULD 'CLEAR DECK' TO FIGHT, HE INSISTS

President Bush said Saturday the promised departure of American hostages and diplomats from Iraq and Kuwait will "clear the decks" for military action against Iraq, rather than improve prospects for peace.

"When you don't have Americans there, and if force is required, that's just one less worry I've got," Bush said at a news conference Caracas, Venezuela, as he finished his South American tour and departed for Washington.

Asked whether Iraq's decision to release the hostages has diminished the risk of war, Bush said: "I want a peaceful solution. I don't feel we are closer to a peaceful solution. And the reason I don't is because (Iraqi president) Saddam Hussein continues insisting that Kuwait is a province of Iraq and that he will not get out of Kuwait."

The hard-line stance clearly was intended to keep the pressure on Saddam, who surprised the world Thursday with his announcement that all foreign hostages, including about 900 Americans, would be released from Iraq and Kuwait.

A private airliner carrying 23 U.S. hostages from Baghdad landed at Ireland's Shannon airport late Saturday to refuel en route to Houston, an airport spokesman said.

But those Americans had obtained exit visas before Saddam made his release announcement. They were accompanied by former Texas Gov. John Connally.

Iraqi officials said Saturday all the departing detainees still need exit visas. U.S. officials have asked them to expedite the processing.

Americans who had been held at strategic installations as "human shields" began arriving in Baghdad on Saturday. Many said they would not feel safe until they were out of Iraq.

The 23 Americans on the flight arranged by Connally also included members of the U.S. Embassy staff in Kuwait and three people who had taken refuge at the ambassador's refuge in Baghdad.

Connally went to Baghdad on a private mission to obtain the release of hostages.

A group of 41 Japanese men whose release was approved before Saddam's announcement also flew to Amman, Jordan, on Saturday aboard an Iraqi Airways plane. They later left for Tokyo.

Nur Eldin al-Safi, the head of Iraqi Airways, said the airline was prepared to fly out all of the hostages within three days if their travel documents are ready. He said no foreign carrier would be allowed to transport them out of Iraq.

Al-Safi said U.S. officials had chartered one of the airlines' Boeing 707s to fly to Kuwait today to pick up Americans. The United States also had chartered a 747 jumbo jet to fly those Americans and others in Baghdad to Frankfurt, Germany, later today, he added.

The official Iraqi News Agency, meanwhile, said Iraq rejected the dates the United States has suggested for Secretary of State James A. Baker III's trip to Baghdad for talks with Saddam.

Iraq proposed Jan. 12 as the date for the Baker trip, the news agency said. The State Department had suggested he visit on Dec. 20, Dec. 21, Dec. 22 or Jan. 3.

Jan. 12 would come only three days before the deadline set down in a U.N. resolution demanding an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. The Security Council measure authorizes use of "all necessary means" to dislodge Iraq after that.

Bush's comments also put Friday's decision by the administration to remove the personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait in a different light. Initially, the move was seen widely as a way of reducing tensions with Iraq, which cut off food, water and electricity last August after Bush defied Saddam's order to close the embassy.

But Bush's remarks Saturday suggested that the evacuation of the embassy will mean one less obstacle to war, rather than signify a step toward peace.

"I think you can make the case that this facilitates the tough decisions that might lie ahead," Bush told reporters.

He said the decision to evacuate the embassy was "no pay-back" to Saddam for ordering the hostage release, adding that "the feeling is that when every single American is out of Kuwait we will clear the decks and the embassy will have ceased to be fulfilling any day-to-day functions."

An administration official traveling with Bush said the White House was not concerned that the president's comments could jeopardize the release of the hostages by angering Saddam.

"We've been tough since Aug. 2, and we continue being tough," the official said, referring to the date of Kuwait's invasion by Iraq.

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