EDWARD HEATH was scheduled to return home from Baghdad, Iraq, today with an unspecified number of British hostages, after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein agreed Sunday to release them. But the former prime minister's mercy mission was continuing to stir controversy in British government circles, with many politicians and officials, including Defense Secretary Tom King, accusing him of undermining the international coalition demanding Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.
Mr. Heath went to Baghdad last Friday with a list of more than 200 Britons held captive by Iraq. They ranged from people who were terminally ill and elderly to others who were traveling through Iraq at the time of the Aug. 2 invasion. There was expected to be argument from the Iraqis about the exact number to be freed. About 1,400 British citizens are trapped in Iraq and Kuwait.
Heath gave details of his successful mission at a news conference in Baghdad yesterday. Earlier he had made it clear that he had not negotiated on matters other than the hostages, but he did discuss the crisis in the Gulf.
He said Saddam had remarked that he would do everything possible to achieve a peaceful solution, but had given no sign of being ready to withdraw from Kuwait.
The Heath mission has aroused conflicting views on the wisdom of having any contact with Saddam's regime. When 10 days ago he announced his intention to fly to Baghdad, Heath was heavily criticized by senior Conservatives for giving succor to the Iraqis. Mr. King said there were ``great dangers'' in the mission. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd took a more moderate line, saying there was ``nothing wrong'' with the Heath mission, so long as it was confined to its central humanitarian purpose.
Mr. Hurd warned last weekend that offering any concession to the Iraqi leader in return for his withdrawal from Kuwait would be ``very dangerous for the future.''
Commenting on the success of the Heath mission, a British foreign spokesman said: ``We welcome the return of any British citizens, and we are pleased for the families. Nobody should have been held hostage to begin with.''
Heath was prime minister from 1970 to 1974 and is a member of the House of Commons. He and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher have poor personal relations with each other, and there were reports from 10 Downing Street that the current prime minister was upset by Heath's initiative. Heath made it plain, however, that he was responding to hundreds of letters and other personal approaches from relatives of captives in Iraq.
The freed hostages were returning home on a Boeing 747 of Virgin Atlantic airlines.
As Heath prepared to fly back to London, the Foreign Office said Britain's position on the need for an unconditional and complete withdrawal by Iraq from Kuwait remained unchanged.
Referring to discussions in London at the weekend between Mrs. Thatcher and Yevgeny Primakov, the special Soviet emissary who held talks a week earlier with Saddam, Hurd said he could detect ``no reason for optimism about the situation.''
Contrary to earlier press reports, Mr. Primakov had not held out hope of an early settlement to the crisis, Hurd said.