WASHINGTON — SADDAM HUSSEIN'S purpose in releasing two Americans jailed in Iraq for five months may be a familiar one: He could be trying to soften his image, and persuade the international community to lift the UN sanctions that have hurt the Iraqi economy since the end of the 1991 Gulf war.
If so, he will still have a long way to go before convincing the United States - the driving force behind the sanctions - that he deserves more lenient treatment.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in a broadcast interview yesterday that the release changed the US view of the need for sanctions "not at all."
Secretary Christopher said he had no idea why Iraq had suddenly freed William Barloon and David Daliberti, two US defense-contractor employees who were captured in March after straying across the Iraq-Kuwait border.
"It's very hard to probe the mind of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps he was trying to court some international favor," Christopher said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "There comes a point where the disadvantages of keeping them outweigh the disadvantages of releasing them. That probably happened here."
The timing of the release could have been an attempt to counter negative publicity.
Just last month, the United Nations Security Council voted to extend its Iraq economic sanctions for another 60 days, citing among other things allegations that Iraq had been less than forthcoming about newly discovered aspects of its biological-weapons effort.
Saddam may thus be hoping that his "humanitarian" action in freeing the Americans could redound to his credit in August, the next time the sanctions are considered. Some US allies, such as France, have long wanted the sanctions lifted. US intransigence, in Saddam's view, is the key to the continued pressure on his country.
In a clear message to the Security Council, the Iraqi News Agency (INA) reported that upon releasing the Americans, Saddam expressed his wish that "heads of state, especially the powerful states, would observe humanitarian considerations when dealing with all issues, whether those pertaining to individuals or people."
Mr. Barloon and Mr. Dahliberti were released following a plea from Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, who visited Saddam in his presidential palace yesterday. The two men plan to leave Iraq today, according to Representative Richardson's press secretary.
INA said that Richardson carried a direct plea from President Clinton and the US Congress. US officials, however, maintained that Richardson was on a private visit, carrying no letters or other documents, and that the congressman was not authorized to negotiate any sort of deal on the part of the US government.
"There were no deals made in the meeting," Richardson said. "There was no quid pro quo or concessions."
The jailed Americans have said they were apprehended after they accidentally strayed into Iraqi territory. Iraq claimed that the pair was involved in espionage. Only 12 days after their capture, the men were sentenced to eight years in prison by an Iraqi court.
US officials have denied that Barloon and Dahliberti were spies. The men's wives traveled to Baghdad to beg for their release, but the sentences were upheld in June.
Their release followed a pattern long established in Iraqi handling of hostages, from the pre-Gulf war period seizing of foreign workers onward.
Though Iraq threatens long jail terms, intervention and personal appearances by foreign dignitaries are effective in winning prisoner release.