AROUND 7,000 foreign nationals - including 4,000 Soviets - trapped here as so-called ``human shields'' are being used by both Baghdad and the West as a bait in an alternating carrot and stick game. ``Iraq is using them as a carrot to secure guarantees that it will not be attacked, while the West is now using them as a stick'' to strike at Baghdad, says an Arab diplomat.
Over the last two weeks the political game has taken a new turn as the United States steps up its criticism of alleged Iraqi mistreatment of Western nationals. Iraq, meanwhile, has unsuccessfully sought to use the issue as a bargaining chip for political guarantees.
Thus as Baghdad presented initiatives for releasing the hostages in return for international commitments to a political solution to the Gulf crisis, Western diplomats warned that the hostage question might lead to war.
``It is very explosive and very emotional. It can actually ignite war,'' a Western diplomat here says.
But over the weekend, Baghdad gave strong indications that it might release all Western nationals held hostage in Iraq as a means of relieving pressure from enemies and friends alike.
``The aim of preventing some foreigners from leaving Iraq was to increase the obstacles in front of the aggressive intentions of the American administration and its allies, and to buy enough time to enable the international public opinion the chance to take a balanced approach towards the region,'' said Saadi Nahdi Saleh, speaker of the Iraqi National Assembly on Saturday.
``We believe that most of our objectives have been attained,'' he said in the clearest sign yet that Iraq might soon release all foreigners.
Initially, Baghdad demanded a US pledge not to launch a military assault against Iraq as a precondition for releasing ``the guests,'' as the hostages are called here. Washington and other Western countries swiftly declared that the detention of Westerners would not deter military action to force Iraq out of Kuwait.
Iraqi officials are convinced that the detention of Western nationals has delayed a US-led military operation against the country's major industrial sites, oil refineries, and military bases.
``We are sure that if it was not for the fact that Western nationals are being held at strategic sites, these sites would have been shelled,'' says an Iraqi journalist.
The aim of these raids would be to accelerate the impact of the international blockade to paralyze the Iraqi economy and military ability.
In practice holding Western nationals has been a two-edged weapon for Iraq. On the one hand, the idea of taking hostages has played well into the hands of the US and other Western countries to mobilize international public opinion against Baghdad.
``It has only helped to further tarnish an already very negative image of Iraq in the West,'' notes a Western diplomat.
Yet at the same time international concern about the hostages has lessened Iraq's isolation and maintained dialogue between Baghdad and various governments and groups in the West.
Peace activists and government officials are streaming into Baghdad every day to appeal for the release of foreigners. Iraqi officials have used such visits to put their own case forward. Former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt was expected in Iraq Monday to seek the release of 400 German hostages.
On most occasions the Iraqi government has heeded these appeals and hundreds of foreign hostages have already been freed. Baghdad is using these releases to attempt to crack the international alliance arrayed against it and to increase domestic pressures on governments not to take part in military action in the Gulf region.
The release of French, and later Bulgarian hostages, was a deliberate step to encourage France to diplomatically distance itself from the US and Britain after Paris called for the solution of all problems in the area including the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Western diplomats here agree that cracks have emerged in the international alliance over how to deal with the Gulf crisis. But what Baghdad has failed to attain is change on two major issues: The hostages and Kuwait.
None of the countries allied against Iraq have accepted its offer for the release of hostages in return for guarantees of non-belligerent activities against Iraq.
Although France, the Soviet Union, and China have repeatedly called for a peaceful solution, they resent a linkage between the hostage issues and the diplomatic process.
Soviet special envoy Yevgeny Primakov told the Iraqis, in a visit last week, that no conditions should be attached to the release of the hostages. Furthermore, the Soviets pressed the Iraqis to withdraw from Kuwait to pave the way for a political settlement.
Baghdad, however, persists in its attempt to divide the alliance by floating initiatives aimed at getting public announcements which will make it more difficult for the US to act alone in the Gulf region.
Some Arab and Western diplomats here say that Iraq might find success with China, which has sought to distance itself from the US and assert its leadership of the third world.
The Chinese foreign minister is expected in Baghdad this week, and Baghdad hopes that it can win over at least one member of the United Nations Security Council. China could turn the tables on the US if it decides to veto further UN resolutions against Baghdad.
Iraqi and Arab analysts expect that, barring an American attack, all Western nationals will be allowed to leave soon.