WASHINGTON (AP) _ All but essential U.S. diplomats, along with family members, are being advised to leave Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon as tensions with Iraq mount.

The State Department, in an advisory Friday, also cautioned private citizens to leave those countries and not to travel to Israel. Further, it urged Americans to leave Iraq and said it was closing the Polish office in Baghdad that provided consular service to Americans in the absence of U.S. relations with Iraq.

``The Iraq regime's continuing refusal to cooperate fully with U.N. weapons inspectors has led to mounting tension between Iraq and the international community,'' the department said.

It said foreigners in Iraq had been used in the past as ``human shields,'' and there are credible reports they may be kidnapped.

Officials said the decision was made on the advice of American diplomats in the embassies and not because of a specific threat to U.S. personnel.

The State Department's action coincided with growing indications that President Bush may authorize the use of force against Iraq to get rid of its suspected weapons of mass destruction.

``This decision results from an overall assessment of the security situation in the region, a rise in anti-American sentiment and the potential for violence and terrorist action against American targets, especially as the international community continues to focus on the issue of Iraqi disarmament,'' said Lou Fintor, a department spokesman.

``This is not to say that military action against Iraq is imminent,'' Fintor said. The authorized departures ``merely represent a prudent measure as we prepare for various contingencies in the region.''

A U.S. Agency for International Development employee was killed last October in Amman, Jordan. Jordanian authorities arrested two men who confessed to the killing and are thought to be linked to the al-Qaida terror network.

The following month, November, an American missionary who worked as a nurse at a clinic in the southern Lebanon port of Sidon was shot dead in the clinic. Investigators have not determined whether her killing was linked to anti-U.S. sentiments in the Middle East or to her missionary work in a Muslim town.

American fast food restaurants in Lebanon also have been targeted in past months amid rising anti-American sentiments over the Iraqi crisis and perceived U.S. bias toward Israel.

U.S. embassies in Tel Aviv, Israel; Amman; Damascus, Syria; and Beirut, Lebanon, and the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem will remain open to help Americans, the State Department said.

In Tel Aviv, embassy spokesman Paul Patin said some Americans left Israel Saturday morning.

Not all Americans appeared to be heeding the advice, however. Angie Schupp, an American doctor in Amman who runs a clinic to treat Iraqi refugees, said she would not ready to leave. ``I do not feel threatened,'' Schupp said. ``The only threat I feel is that of uncertainty.''

Americans in the volatile Persian Gulf countries were warned to increase security precautions and be ready to evacuate. Most Americans in Lebanon are dual Lebanese-American nationals, many of whom stayed through the 1975-90 civil war and during a travel ban on U.S. citizens that was lifted in 1997.


On the Net: State Department's caution: http://travel.state.gov/wwc1.html