WASHINGTON — IRAQ'S Saddam Hussein is playing a brutal game of revolving door with foreign hostages. Continued releases of captive ``guests'' are allowing the Iraqi leader to appear magnanimous and responsive to the pleas of such high-level emissaries as former British Prime Minister Edward Heath. At the same time, foreigners are still being rounded up in Kuwait City, ensuring an incoming supply of human shields for Iraqi installations.
Nine Westerners, two Americans among them, were captured last weekend in Kuwait, according to the State Department. At least 106 Americans are now being held prisoner in Iraq, along with some 500 Britons, Germans, Japanese, and other foreigners.
``The Iraqis still have not provided us with a list of the Americans that they have detained, or granted us access to any of them or told us where they are,'' State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Monday.
A handful of human shields spoke out against the dangers of their position in a letter that reached a Western embassy in Baghdad earlier this week. The hostages said they were being held in a liquefied petroleum gas storage terminal, ``an extremely dangerous location,'' according to the letter.
Besides these hostages, thousands of foreigners remain blocked in Kuwait and Iraq, many in hiding. Denied exit by Iraq, they are potential human shields.
In recent days, however, Saddam Hussein has been trying to emphasize the hostages he may set free, rather than the ones still under his control. In quick succession he has:
Promised the release of sick and elderly British hostages, to visiting former Prime Minister Heath.
Asked his parliament to consider letting all French nationals go home, as ``confirmation of Iraq's attachment to its friendship with France.'' France said it would repatriate them if they were freed unilaterally by the Iraqis, but rejected any negotiations on their release. The gesture was interpreted in Paris as another attempt to divide France from its Western allies.
Told Salim Mansour, head of the Iraqi-American Friendship Foundation, an Iraqi-based friendship organization, that 14 Americans would be released Oct. 23. The group was likely to include sick and elderly. Mr. Mansour said names were being worked out between the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and the US Embassy in Baghdad.
This hostage-in, hostage-out routine is a subtle game. Saddam Hussein may be trying to split the United Nations coalition by granting the favor of release of nationals to some countries. By letting hostages go, he appears a more generous figure to pro-Saddam Arabs.
Iraq is to a certain extent ``avoiding world castigation for playing with human lives by once in a while letting them out,'' says Walter Cutler, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. ``They're giving at least a minimal appearance of humane treatment, even though we all realize what they're doing is really unacceptable.''
Saddam is walking a fine line, using hostages to protect himself while at the same time trying not to give the forces allied against him a reason to launch an attack. ``I think Saddam Hussein wants to avoid at all costs any provocation,'' says Ambassador Cutler.
Iraq's hostage-release publicity blitz comes at a time when there is increased speculation in the West that Saddam Hussein may want to back out of Kuwait, while retaining possession of several strategic Gulf islands and the whole of the Rumaila oil field.
In yet another bizarre twist to the Gulf crisis, this move reportedly came to Saddam Hussein in his dreams. According to a Bahrain newspaper, leaflets describing the dream sequence have been distributed by Iraqi troops in Kuwait. The leaflets say that Hussein was visited in his sleep by the prophet Muhammad, who called on him to leave Kuwait but retain the Gulf islands.
Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan ibn Abdel Aziz al-Saud fueled this peace speculation by suggesting that Kuwait might make territorial concessions to Iraq, after Iraqi forces had been withdrawn from Kuwaiti soil. Saudi Arabia ``sees no harm in any Arab country giving its Arab sister land, a site or a position on the sea,'' the prince told Arab journalists.
US officials have long rejected the idea that Saddam Hussein be allowed to retain anything, or be seen to have profited from his aggression. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the Bush administration had been informed by the Saudi ambassador that the prince's statements did not reflect any change in Saudi policy.