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IRAQ HOSTAGE AIRLIFT WINDING DOWN AIRPORTS TEEM WITH HUNDREDS AWAITING EXIT

Hundreds of foreigners assembled at airports in Iraq and Kuwait today as the mass exodus of hostages drew to a close.

Three Iraqi Airways planes flew to Kuwait to pick up people being released by President Saddam Hussein who want to return to their homelands.

President Bush, meanwhile, cited stories told by freed hostages as proof of Iraq's "assault on the soul of a nation."

The hostages were assembled in Baghdad to board chartered flights for London and Germany. Diplomats said there would likely be one more such flight later this week.

A U.S.-chartered Iraqi Airways 747 bound for Frankfurt, Germany, was carrying two American doctors sent by the State Department to tend to those foreigners just coming out of hiding in Kuwait, U.S. diplomats said.

There was no estimate of the number of Americans leaving Iraq and Kuwait today.

Not all of the estimated 600 U.S. citizens left in Iraq and Kuwait were expected to leave.

Diplomats said about 400 were expected to remain in Iraq, mainly people with dual U.S.-Iraqi citizenship or American spouses of Iraqi citizens.

British Embassy officials said about 400 Britons were preparing to depart. They said that would leave about 150 Britons in Iraq and Kuwait, many of whom would stay for various reasons.

More than 150 freed Americans arrived at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington on Monday, and more than 500 former hostages flew into London. There were other flights to Italy and Jordan.

In Washington, Bush lashed out at
Saddam in a speech clearly aimed at limiting the Iraqi president's publicity gains from releasing the hostages.

"What has happened to Kuwait is more than an invasion," Bush said Monday in a Human Rights Day address. "It is a systematic assault on the soul of a nation."

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. Preceding Iraq's seizure of Kuwait, Saddam accused Kuwait of overexploiting the field.

"Kuwait is Iraqi, whether in the past, present or future, and we will not compromise one iota on Kuwaiti territory," Jassim said.

The experiences related by the hostages ranged from terrifying to unpleasant to tedious.

"For the most part, it was boring," said Gale Rogers, a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait.

Donald Latham, 50, of Albuquerque, N.M., returned home with his stepfather, Eugene Hughes, 69, after a harrowing stay in Kuwait marked by the slaying of a burglar.

"We had a Palestinian break into our house, and I killed him with a machete," Latham said.

Stories of Iraqi soldiers torturing and murdering Kuwaitis were common.

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 high-level talks with the United States.

Aziz was quoted by the New York Times today 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.

In other developments:

Sixty-one percent of Americans believe the United States will go to war with Iraq, an ABC News poll released today shows, and 58 percent of those interviewed said they would support a war if Iraq does not leave Kuwait.

The U.N. Security Council late Monday postponed until Wednesday a vote on a resolution to protect Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, including a call for a Middle East peace conference.

The United States favors such a conference at an appropriate time but thinks that mentioning it now in the resolution might be interpreted as a concession to Iraq, which has linked any settlement of the crisis sparked by its invasion of Kuwait to a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, most powerful of the nation's 15 republics, appealed to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev today not to allow Soviet forces to be drawn into any armed conflict in the gulf.

Tass news agency said the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, the republic's highest legislative body, passed a motion warning of the danger of dispatching forces.

The Washington Post reported today that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze had rejected a request Monday by Baker to deploy a token military force in the gulf, citing adverse Soviet public opinion. U.S. officials later denied having made the request. Baker and Shevardnadze are meeting in Houston to discuss the gulf crisis and arms control, among other topics.

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