More than two weeks of bizarre imprisonment have come to an end for the 39 American hostages held by Shiite Muslim gunmen who alternately harangued and pampered them. The hostages left here Sunday afternoon for Damascus by road after 24 hours of excruciating anticipation during which the Shiite fundamentalist Hizbullah (``Party of God'') thumbed its nose at Syrian President Hafez Assad and refused to turn over four hostages it had held separately from the other 35.
Mr. Assad is unlikely to forget or forgive the embarrassment. The delay undermined his careful efforts to portray Syria as the only power in the Middle East capable of controlling the fate of Lebanon. Such a role is crucial to Syria in its efforts to convince the United States that, as one diplomat put it, ``all roads in the Middle East lead through Damascus.''
Assad intervened last week after a trip to the Soviet Union, where he met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Diplomats here believe that Assad was told by the Soviets that a solution should be found to the hijacking. Assad in turn pressured Lebanon's Shiite Amal leader, Nabih Berri, to release the Americans.
Assad also summoned Hojatolislam Hashemi Raf-sanjani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, to Damascus. Iran's revolutionary Islamic government is known to have close links with Lebanon's Hizbullah, which is assumed to have carried out the original June 14 hijacking of the TWA jet. (US Sen. Jesse Helms [R] of North Carolina has claimed that Iran participated in the planning of the hijacking.)
During his visit to Damascus, however, Iran's Rafsanjani denounced the hijacking and denied that Iran was involved in it. And the pressure from Syria, which is one of Iran's most important supporters in its lengthy and costly war with Iraq, seemed to help Berri in his ongoing struggle with Hizbullah.
There are still another seven Americans, four Frenchmen, and one Briton being held in Lebanon. On Sunday Nabih Berri said two of the Frenchmen would be released sometime in the next two days.
Berri has said Amal does not control the seven Americans and cannot locate them. They are thought to be held by Hizbullah-associated groups such as Islamic Jihad.
Both Secretary of State George Shultz and President Reagan have demanded release of the seven Americans. Mr. Reagan included them when he said Friday that he thought the United States should do all that it could to get all Americans out of the hands of ``thugs, murderers, and barbarians.''
Despite Saturday's announcements in Damascus and Washington that the hostages had been freed, reporters waited in vain all day at a school in Beirut's Shiite-controlled southern suburbs, at the airport, and at Berri's house. Tense Amal militiamen, fingering automatic rifles, waved newsmen back from the school where the hostages had been gathered to await transfer to International Red Cross buses. A scheduled Berri press conference was repeatedly delayed, then finally cancelled.
The problem surfaced Saturday when Red Cross officials read a roll call of hostages and discovered that four being held by Hizbullah were missing. The four, thought to be Robert Brown, Jeff Ingalls, Robert Trautmann, and Richard Herzberg, had been separated out by the hijackers near the beginning of the crisis. It is thought that two were selected because they carried military identification cards, and two because they had Jewish-sounding last names.
Members of Hizbullah told reporters that the organization was resisting turning over the captives it holds because the Americans and Israelis had given no guarantee that they would not retaliate once the hostages were freed. Amal spokesmen said Hizbullah also wanted the Israelis to release first some 70 Hizbullah members Israel is believed to be holding before Hizbullah would turn over its hostages.
The original Hizbullah hijackers had turned the bulk of the hostages over to Berri and his men only after it had become clear that Hizbullah itself could not negotiate with the Americans to gain the hijackers' chief demand -- that Israel free all Lebanese prisoners it is holding in Atlit prison camp in northern Israel. A statement released by the Reagan administration late Saturday restating the US commitment to the integrity, security, and stability of Lebanon may have been a factor in reassuring Hizbullah and prompting its decision to let the four Americans rejoin their compatriots.
Nonetheless, on Sunday it looked for a while as if the delay would be repeated. Amal fighters even fired over the heads of reporters at one point during the long, tense wait. But Assad apparently was taking no chances Sunday that the hostages would spend another night in Beirut. A convoy of Amal and Druze militiamen was joined by what one Amal spokesman described as high-ranking officials of Syrian security. The Amal spokesmen said the Syrians were there to ensure the hostages' release.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Saturday, when it was still thought the Americans had been freed, that their release removed the major obstacle to release of the Lebanese prionsers. Israel has said repeatedly it intended all along to release the people held in Atlit, but would not do so to meet the hijackers' demands.
Israeli Cabinet spokesman Yossi Beilin said after the Cabinet met Sunday that it had discussed developments in the hijack situation. He said no decision had been taken to free the Atlit prisoners. But Amal spokesman Abu Ramayah told reporters as they waited in a south Beirut suburb for the hostages' release, ``We have a promise from Syria that they [the Israelis] will release our prisoners from Atlit.''
Although US Vice-President George Bush insisted Sunday that the Reagan administration did not reach a deal with the hijackers or anybody else involved, it seemed clear that private assurances had been conveyed to Berri, through Syria, that all the Atlit prisoners would be released once the Americans reached safety. Israeli military sources have indicated Israel will continue releasing batches of the prisoners.
Despite the delay in Israel's reported plan to release the Lebanese prisoners, President Assad has emerged as an apparent victor from the hijacking. He almost certainly has extracted some promise from the Americans that Syria would not be excluded from any Middle East peace process, says one diplomat in Beirut.
Assad has publicly and virulently attacked the joint initiative of Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat. The initiative, aimed at bringing the Jordanians and Palestinians to a peace table with Israel, has been cheered on by the US.
In an interview on Israel Radio, an Israeli expert on Syria said Assad's role in freeing the Americans meant ``the Golan is back on the table.'' Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The strategic heights subsequently were annexed by Israel. Syria fears that if Hussein and Arafat reach an agreement with the Israelis on the future of the occupied West Bank, Syria will have no leverage to negotiate a return of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty.
Assad's ability to find a way out of the hostage dilemma for the United States is bound to impress the Reagan administration with the Syrian leader's ability to deliver in tumultuous Lebanon. Assad undoubtedly hopes it will also convince the Americans of Syria's regional importance.
In the long run, the hijacking may have most damaged Berri, a man considered both by Israel and the United States to be relatively moderate. Hizbullah, by keeping control over a group of passengers, then refusing to release them to Berri after a deal was reached, may have seriously undermined his tenuous grip on Lebanon's Shiite community.
The struggle for control over Lebanon's largest religious community will continue even after the American hostages are safely back in the United States. It is a battle that was played out on Beirut's airport tarmac and in the rural south, where Amal is consolidating its control in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal.