The State Department advised nonessential U.S. diplomats and family members on Friday to leave Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Private U.S. citizens also were advised to leave those countries and Americans were cautioned not to travel to Israel.

At the same time, the department urged Americans to stay away from 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.

U.S. citizens in Iraq were urged to leave.

"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.

The statement 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 moves 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," Lou Fintor, a department spokesman, said.

"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."

The U.S. embassies in Tel Aviv, Amman, Damascus and Beirut and the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem will remain open to assist Americans, the spokesman said.

The diplomats and family members would return home at government expense, leaving only essential personnel at the embassies in Tel Aviv, Amman, Damascus and Beirut and the consulate in Jerusalem.

"Private American citizens in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza should evaluate rigorously their own security situations and should consider departing," the department said.

And U.S. citizens were urged to avoid travel to Israel and the two territories. "Americans in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza should exercise caution and take prudent measures to maintain their security," the State Department said.

Hundreds of U.S. diplomats and family members could be involved in the departures.