WITH a mood of subdued relief scores of American former hostages are now returning to the United States and their families. With cheers, balloons, and an ``It's About Time'' sign their fellow citizens are welcoming them back from months in Kuwait in hiding, or in Iraq as human shields to protect military installations from US attack.
The smiles were broad but the weariness evident as the first group of 152 quietly descended red-carpeted stairs upon arriving late Monday, Dec. 10, at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. A few waved vigorously to cheering hundreds behind a chain-link fence. Symbolically, the first returning hostage paused briefly at the top of the stairs to photograph the moment he would never forget - his first post-hostage sight of America.
But it was not the first taste of home. Their airborne lunch included fast-food hamburgers - the quintessential American food many hostages craved after months of often unvaried, unfamiliar, or tainted food.
Monday's was the first of several anticipated flights to return to the US those of the estimated 550 to 600 Americans who want to come, now that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is permitting all to leave. The remainder of those hostages were expected to leave on a flight Dec. 11. An unknown number of Americans married to Iraqis or Kuwaitis may decide to remain.
As Americans now are returning to their native land so, too, hundreds of citizens of other nations - Italy, Britain, the Soviet Union, to name three - are also streaming back to their homelands. An estimated 8,000 citizens of many nationalities are believed to have been held against their will in Iraq or Kuwait.
Even as the hostage relief spurred talk of a peaceful settlement of the Gulf crisis, both the US and Iraq continued to speak of war.
In Baghdad, Iraq's information minister insisted that Iraq would never surrender an inch of occupied Kuwait, now claimed as its 19th province. Talk of withdrawal is ``nothing but dreams and wishful thinking,'' Latif Jassim said.
In Washington, meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Richard Cheney said the release of the hostages did not diminish the risk of war since it falls short of demands, laid down in several UN resolutions, for a total Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
Secretary Cheney said Iraq was continuing to send reinforcements to Kuwait and southern Iraq. Meanwhile 24,000 US marines prepared to leave from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for the Middle East.
US officials say that with US and other foreign nationals out of harm's way, it will be easier to gain congressional and public support for a decision to go to war if Iraq does not withdraw.
But many analysts draw the opposite conclusion. They say it has been the hostage issue, more than any other, that has angered the American public. If all the hostages are released - and if Saddam should now propose a compromise solution that would restore most Kuwaiti territory - obtaining the consensus for war could prove far harder.
Of the Americans who landed in Washington Dec. 10, 16 had been in hiding in the besieged US Embassy in Kuwait. State Department officials say five US diplomats, led by Ambassador Nathaniel Howell, will remain in the embassy until all Americans have been accounted for.
When they reached Frankfurt, Germany, several hostages spoke movingly of their privations while in hiding in Kuwait. But once they returned to the US, government officials made a determined effort to help them regain their privacy, keeping them at arm's length from journalists until they had had an opportunity to meet with their families.
Most passengers on Monday's flight, like most remaining hostages, are men. Nearly all women and children were evacuated three months ago, but Saddam did not permit adult males to leave at that time.
Many Americans in hiding in Kuwait learned last week from shortwave radio broadcasts that it now was safe to emerge.
Western observers speculate that Saddam's decision to release all foreign hostages was prompted by two considerations. He concluded that Bush would not be deterred by the presence of the hostages from using military force. In addition, he decided that the hostages had become a liability in terms of world opinion.
The timing of Saddam's announcement, coming shortly after Bush's decision to hold talks with Iraqi leaders, reinforced the view that a diplomatic solution to the Gulf crisis may be possible.