BEFORE Saddam Hussein's dispersal of foreign nationals held against their will in Kuwait and Iraq, few countries had used innocent civilians as hostages in quite the same way. For parallels, historians reach for Nazi Germany's behavior in occupied countries or the Barbary States of North Africa nearly 200 years ago.
Until the past weekend, American officials had hoped that Western civilians in Kuwait and Iraq would not become bargaining chips. By Monday morning, even President Bush called the thousands of foreign nationals held by Iraq ``hostages'' during a speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Baltimore.
During the weekend, the Iraqi leader tried to barter with their freedom for major diplomatic and military concessions and threatened to use them as human shields against bombing raids against key Iraqi installations.
He also made clear that as Iraq suffered the deprivations of economic sanctions, the hostages would suffer them, too.
Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, one of Congress's leading authorities on defense issues, contends that many conflicts in the post-cold-war world will involve hostage-taking.
Even the recent Marine sweep into civil-war-torn Liberia, he notes, was triggered by a rebel leader's threat to seize American hostages. He warns that the US should not be paralyzed by threats against hostages.
Military strategists tend to agree that protecting American lives abroad is only one of many US interests in the Persian Gulf right now, and US policy should not be chained by threats to hostages.
But this is a hard message to deliver, says Donald Hafner, a Boston College political scientist and former arms control official in the Carter administration. The message to 3,000 Americans trapped in Iraq and Kuwait and to their relatives at home, he says, comes to this: ``I'm sorry, but these are the fortunes of war.''
The 3,000 Americans are among about 21,000 Westerners caught in Iraq or Iraq-occupied Kuwait. Saddam offered on Sunday to free them all if the United States promises to remove its forces from Saudi Arabia and lift the international economic sanctions against Iraq.
In the meantime, he said, the captives will be spread among potential bombing targets in Iraq.
``He knows how volatile hostages can be in terms of public opinion for the American president,'' says Jeff Simon, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, an independent think tank that works largely for the Pentagon. ``Hussein has taken this hostage drama and escalated it.''
During World War II, diplomats and journalists were interned by the Nazis, but they were held safe until their repatriation was negotiated within six months of America's entry into the war.
``So even in all-out, total war, the niceties were observed,'' says diplomatic historian John Gaddis of Ohio University.
``I still feel the difference is that we were dealing with basically civilized nations,'' says an Army strategic theorist, comparing Iraq to Nazi Germany.
The Nazis did provide some parallel to Iraq's threats in seizing, threatening, and killing citizens in occupied areas until they obtained obedience from the population. Both Nazi Germany and North Korea placed prisoner-of-war camps near potential bombing targets to act as human shields.
Early in the 19th century, the US fought the Turkish-ruled Barbary States, which often took hostages. Although most American hostages have been seized in the Islamic Middle East, the practice has no roots in Arab or Islamic culture, says Bernard Lewis, a retired Princeton professor and author of numerous books on the Middle East.
Arab tradition, in fact, requires that a guest be protected even if he becomes an enemy, when he must be given three days notice to leave safely, says Dr. Lewis.