London — The Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy, remembered best for negotiating the freedom of British political detainees in Iran and Libya, is thought here to be up against much tougher odds this time. Terry Waite, a mountain of a man at 6 feet 7 inches, is in the Middle East on his most delicate mission yet: securing the release of eight Western hostages held in Lebanon by the extremist Shiite Muslim group, Islamic Jihad (Holy War).
Mr. Waite, lay secretary to the primate of the Church of England, Dr. Robert Runcie, made headlines in February, when he helped free Britons held by Libya. This time the circumstances are more difficult.
Instead of dealing with a sovereign state, as with Libya, Waite must work through the bewildering labyrinth of Lebanese politics in which there are many competing factions.
Yet there have been encouraging signs. Waite reported that he has ``got through to the right people,'' which is taken to mean either the actual captors or the leadership of the group that decided to seize the hostages.
Waite, who is principally caught up in securing the release of four American hostages, became involved after the four Americans sent a letter last month to Archbishop Runcie and President Reagan asking for help.
Of the six Americans missing in Lebanon, the four held by Islamic Jihad are Terry Anderson, the Rev. Lawrence Jenco, David Jacobsen, and Thomas Sutherland. Last month, Islamic Jihad claimed it had killed American diplomat William Buckley, but this has not been confirmed. No mention has been made for months about American Peter Kilburn, missing since 1984. Another American, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, was freed by Islamic Jihad in September.
Waite is also intervening on behalf of four French hostages who Islamic Jihad is reportedly holding. Waite also said he would inquire about Alec Collett, a kidnapped British journalist.
Hopes that Waite's shuttle diplomacy might prove successful were raised when he returned to Beirut on Tuesday, 24 hours after his first visit. His comment to reporters that he was going back with some important things to say is taken as a positive sign. Before returning, Waite had met with American and French officials.
But Waite, both discreet and tactful, has refused to give too much away for fear of putting people's lives in jeopardy. On his mission, he has stressed the Christian virtues of compassion, mercy, and justice, while calling on the kidnappers to show Islam ``in its true glory'' by releasing the hostages.
A complicating factor is that, unlike the Libyan situation where Waite needed the consent only of the government involved, the Lebanese situation is more prone to outside pressure.
Reports circulating in London suggest that Syria might help. It took concerted Syrian pressure to get three Russian diplomats, kidnapped by a pro-Iranian group in Beirut and released last month.
Syrians have been bringing pressure on the leaders of the three main militias in Beirut to sign a pact ending the long civil war. Syria, it is thought, might want to see those groups sign a Syrian-backed ceasefire before it's willing to cooperate on efforts to free the Americans.