BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Iraqi President Saddam Hussein said Tuesday after meeting with boxing great Muhammad Ali that a number of Americans held in Iraq would soon be allowed to leave the country.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Ali said the number of hostages Saddam promised to free was not specified but that he would remain in Baghdad until they could fly home. He met Tuesday with some of the Americans detained in Baghdad as ''human shields'' in case of attack by multinational troops.

Ali, on a mission to Baghdad on behalf of a number of American peace groups, arrived in the Iraqi capital last Wednesday.

He met Tuesday with Saddam for about 50 minutes. During the meeting, the president reiterated his stand on the need for a peaceful settlement to the Persian Gulf crisis, which began with Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.

Ali said he told the Iraqi leader that a release would be ''good for maintaining peace in the area and good for the image of Iraq in the United States.''

Ali, 48, said Saddam gave him a brief review of the history of the area and that he was impressed with its important culture.

''This is the land of the Garden of Eden and the land where Abraham was born. How could it be bombed?'' he said.

Ali said he found the president ''a man of conviction.''

The onetime world boxing champion converted to Islam in 1964, and changed his name from Cassius Clay.

In Iraq at the invitation of the government, he has been staying in a government guest house and visited holy shrines in the towns of Kerbala and Najaf. He was mobbed by children wanting their picture taken with him wherever he went in Iraq.

Ali, who suffers from Parkinson's Disease, marked by slurred speech and shaking limbs, used hand signals to communicate with Jaber Mohammed, who speaks for him.

Ali won the championship with a first-round knockout of Sonny Liston on May 25, 1965. Ali then defended the crown eight times until he was stripped of the title in 1967 after being convicted of draft evasion for refusing induction into the Army.

The New York State Athletic Commission returned his license on Sept. 28, 1970. He defended the title 10 times before retiring in 1981 with a 56-5 record.