THE release of a second American hostage, Frank Reed, barely eight days after that of Robert Polhill, has strengthened the impression that a process is under way that should eventually lead to freedom for all the remaining 15 Western hostages. Observers of the hostage situation were impressed by Mr. Reed's release for two reasons. For one thing, it happened despite the upset caused by the United States House of Representatives' vote a few days earlier to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a move that prompted warnings from radical Muslim leaders in Lebanon that further hostage releases had been jeopardized.
Secondly, while there is some confusion over the identity and affiliations of Reed's captors, it seems almost certain that their kidnap cells is distinct from that of the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine (IJLP), which was holding Mr. Polhill. Tehran, analysts conclude, has thus demonstrated its ability to influence more than one of the kidnap factions.
Frank Reed was the odd man out among the American hostages. Unlike the others, responsibility for his abduction had never been authoritatively claimed in the name of any group. The Islamic Jihad, which still holds Americans Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland, formally denied an unauthenticated claim made in its name shortly after Reed's abduction in September 1986. The only other claim at that time, also unauthenticated, was in the name of an unknown but apparently pro-Libyan group called the Arab Revolutionary Cells.
There was complete silence for more than three years, until a bald, unexplained, and unsigned announcement on Sunday that Reed was to be freed in 48 hours. In a second statement, his captors declared that their group was called the Islamic Dawn Organization, obviously a name invented for the occasion, but one that put the affair clearly in the arena of Iranian-inspired Islamic radicals rather than pro-Libyan extremists.
Two of the French hostages freed by the Islamic Jihad in 1988 said they had in fact seen Reed in captivity. That would imply that he was indeed being held by that faction, despite its denial. Why it should disclaim him, while publicly owning to the detention of other hostages, remains open to speculation. One possible explanation is that the kidnappers may have wanted to avoid causing problems between Iran and the Syrians, who had launched a new security plan in west Beirut two months before Reed's abduction.
Local clan demands
If Reed was indeed held by the Islamic Jihad, his release would be a strong sign that Tehran is pressing hard on the kidnappers. Although all the kidnap cells holding Americans and most other Western hostages are believed to be affiliated with the Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah, and to be manipulated to greater or lesser extent by Tehran, some of the leaders or clans have their own local or personal axes to grind.
In the case of the Islamic Jihad, its reputed leader, Imad Mughnieh, is said to be very serious about his demand for the release of 15 Islamic radicals, including his brother-in-law, still serving jail sentences for bomb attacks in Kuwait.
The six remaining US hostages are divided equally between three kidnap cells - the Islamic Jihad, the IJLP, and the Revolutionary Justice Organization. Some Shiites sources say the latter two groups are part of the same Hizbullah offshoot. If so, by helping bring about the Polhill and Reed releases, Tehran has shown that it is potentially capable of helping free the remaining six.
Most observers expect something of a lull in the hostage release process now, while the impact of the first two is assessed. Iranian and Syrian officials, and radical Shiite leaders in Lebanon, have said it is time for the Americans to come up with some kind of positive response in order to encourage further releases.
President Bush has already made it clear that, beyond publicly thanking Tehran for helping with the releases, there is little he can do in the field of US-Iranian relations until all the hostages are unconditionally freed.
Iranian and Lebanese Shiite leaders have pointed to other, less direct ways. But none of those appears likely at the moment to produce helpful results. Some well-placed Beirut sources believe the hostage release process may go slowly ahead, even if President Hashemi Rafsanjani or the kidnappers do not get any tangible rewards at this stage.
Ahead there have been calls for the US to press Israel to free Arab and Lebanese prisoners, especially Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a Hizbullah cleric, who was abducted by Israeli troops from south Lebanon last summer. But Israeli officials have made it clear they will not free Sheikh Obeid or other Shiite prisoners to facilitate the freeing of Western hostages, unless the release of three Israeli servicemen captured by the Lebanese Shiites is part of the deal.
Iran's hostages in Lebanon
Iranian officials have also again raised the case of three Iranians and their Lebanese driver who have been missing since they were detained by the Christian militia in 1982. But a senior and authoritative Christian militia source said categorically in a recent interview that the four men were killed shortly after their capture.
``If we were still holding them, why would we deny it?'' the source asked. ``We would use them to exchange for arms, money, or whatever.''