Iraqi officials feel tricked over hostage release


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- With U.S. peace talks on hold, Iraqi officials began to say yesterday that Iraq might have been tricked into releasing its foreign hostages on the false assumption that a reduction in the level of hostility was in the works.

In private conversations, Iraqi officials say that President Saddam Hussein's decision to move forward the date for freeing the foreigners and accelerate the process was a show of good will to answer President Bush's proposal for talks by each country's top diplomat in the capital city of the other. Iraq had originally announced that it would begin freeing the hostages on Christmas Day and complete the process by mid-March.

In the Iraqi view, that gesture was undone when Mr. Bush announced that the first session of talks -- with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz in Washington -- was "on hold" because Baghdad and Washington could not agree on a date for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to visit Iraq for the second session.

The Iraqis give no indication that Mr. Bush's offer of talks and the subsequently announced release of the hostages was an arranged deal but say that, in Arab tradition, reciprocal moves are to be respected. With the talks now apparently off, Iraq feels cheated.

"The freedom of the guests was a humanitarian gesture that Iraq made independently," said a Foreign Ministry official, using the official euphemism for the hostages. "But it is hard not to be offended."

Yesterday, Iraq continued to insist that it would not bow to U.S. demands for an early date for a Baghdad meeting between Mr. Baker and Mr. Hussein. Mr. Bush had been scheduled to meet with Mr. Aziz today in Washington. But the date was contingent upon the setting of a second meeting between Mr. Hussein and Mr. Baker.

Mr. Hussein offered to meet Mr. Baker on Jan. 12, three days before the deadline fixed in a United Nations Security Council resolution that calls for Iraq to withdraw unconditionally from occupied Kuwait or face the threat of military action.

Washington rejected such a late date and asked for the meeting on or before Jan. 3.

[In Brussels, Belgium, Mr. Baker said yesterday that he was still hopeful that the talks with Iraq could take place despite the impasse over the dates, according to Reuters.

["We hope something can be arranged," Mr. Baker told reporters aboard his plane flying to Brussels for a NATO foreign ministers' meeting. "We have put 15 dates out there, and we would hope there would be a basis within which we could agree."

[His tone seemed more conciliatory than recent Bush administration statements. Mr. Bush accused the Iraqis of trying to manipulate the talks to circumvent the U.N. resolution.

[A senior official traveling with Mr. Baker to Brussels said he expected Mr. Hussein to put forward a new proposal rather than risk seeing the talks fall through.]

Iraqi officials in Baghdad said they resented any suggestion that Iraq needs the talks.

"You think we are begging for talks?" asked Naji el-Hadithi, a government spokesman. "We are happy to sit here and talk to our own people."

Mr. el-Hadithi argued that time is on Iraq's side as the deadline for possible war approaches. "Opposition to Bush is growing and over time will grow more," he said.

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