Don't Forget the Hostages in Beirut

THE furor in the Islamic world over Salman Rushdie's ``The Satanic Verses'' now makes it all but certain that Terry Anderson will begin his fifth year as an American hostage next month chained to a wall somewhere in Beirut. The plight of the Associated Press newsman, kidnapped in broad daylight March 16, 1985, and the eight other American hostages is so horrendous that it is hard for free men and women to comprehend. We may be tempted to deal with the issue by putting it out of mind. We must not.

These American hostages are not so unlike ourselves. They are not adventurers who stepped into harm's way to enrich themselves, but ordinary people engaged in journalism, education, and other aspects of the public good under the most trying conditions of war-torn Beirut. They are held against their will by Islamic fundamentalists as bargaining chips, and the price for their freedom keeps changing.

The conditions under which they are detained are barbaric. They are shifted from apartments to basements, confined in closets, chained to walls or cots, deprived of communication, given medical treatment only occasionally, provided little exercise and scant chance to keep clean. Worst of all, they are denied hope, save what the human spirit can generate.

For these reasons, George Bush's trial balloon seeking help in resolving their plight was most welcome. We should not give up hope now despite the controversy over ``The Satanic Verses.'' Mr. Bush's initiative is not a prelude to negotiating with terrorists, nor should it be. It is an effort to appeal to civilized nations and individuals with influence to find and turn the pressure points on the captors. We should remember a number of positive trends:

Iran's need for European and US help in reconstructing its economy and oil industry after the Iran-Iraq war remains. The Iranian ``pragmatists'' will lie low for now, but in time they will be driven again by economic necessity to resume the effort to improve relations with the West.

The United States, in a significant shift, has agreed to talk with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, undercutting some of the Middle East hard-liners and giving new hope for the peace process.

The Soviet Union, following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, has begun a new initiative with Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's trip through the Middle East. There is reason to believe that Moscow is concerned about the spread of terrorism, and the Kremlin has given hints in the past it is sympathetic to the plight of hostages in Beirut.

Syrian troops have been back in Lebanon for some time, and President Hafez Assad is sending out signals that he would like to see an end to hostage taking.

President Bush seemed to hold out a long-term offer to Iran in his inaugural message: If you use your influence with the kidnappers to win the release of our citizens, we will be willing to discuss the whole range of US-Iranian relations in a positive spirit.

Of course, the Rushdie controversy is an obstacle for now. But there will always be obstacles to scare away the faint-hearted.

Bush quite correctly signaled in advance that the US will refuse anything that looks like ransom or that creates advanced linkage among the hostages, frozen Iranian assets, and Iranian arms purchases that are blocked in the United States. Yet Iran will almost certainly try to make this linkage.

And how much power, some will ask, does Iran really have over the Hizbullah kidnappers, who have posed a series of unrealistic conditions, from the release of 17 terrorists in Kuwait who blew up the US Embassy in Beirut to the release of all Palestinians held in Israel?

The odds may seem hopeless at times, but there is no reason to give up. The more difficult the situation, the more cool attention we should devote to it. Col. William Higgins became a hostage just over a year ago, on Feb. 17. Terry Anderson begins his fifth year March 16. Thomas Sutherland begins his fifth year June 8. We will not forget.

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