Saddam's Hostage-Juggling Game

IRAQ's decision to free hostages beginning on Christmas Day clearly reflects Saddam Hussein's fear of a possible American or United Nations-sanctioned air strike against Baghdad. To his adviser's best knowledge, it would constitute the most effective deterrence to an aerial attack. More important, it also serves as the best propaganda ploy to significantly weaken the United States-led international coalition. Iraq's condition for the release of foreign hostages is that nothing mar the present ``peaceful'' environment. Any American military action - or even increased threats - against Saddam could lead to a sudden reversal of his decision. Aware that the most likely period for an American-led offensive is the early months of next year, the Iraqi government has stretched the time span of the hostage-release to March.

In fact, the Iraqis captured more Western hostages on the day they announced their plan, which suggests they can and will continue to play this hostage game by replenishing their reserve of human shields.

Saddam has repeatedly expressed his intention to release all Western hostages in exchange for Washington's pledge to not attack Iraq. Most recently, the Iraqi government stated that a declared commitment by the permanent members of the UN Security Council to refrain from attacking Iraq would lead to the hostages' release. No nation seriously considered his sly offer, and the Iraqi leader is now pursuing his plan unilaterally in hopes of forestalling military action against Baghdad. The proposal to let all Soviets go is his latest gambit.

Saddam's foremost concern is an imminent American attack. For the past three and half months, the Iraqi leader has scrupulously averted anything that might lead to military confrontation. To a surprising degree, the Iraqi regime has carefully avoided provoking the US-led international coalition. In late August, the Baghdad government ordered Iraqi ships to obey the UN sanctions. The Iraqis were almost begging Paris to mend the badly damaged Iraqi-French relationship in September after their troops intruded on the French diplomatic premises in Kuwait.

Throughout the fall, Baghdad has sweated to show good will by releasing hundreds of hostages and inviting the families of hostages to visit their loved ones held in Iraq. Saddam sent mixed signals by reiterating his willingness to negotiate a settlement, while showing no sign of giving up Kuwait. Although his continuous propaganda campaigns have thus far failed to sway the US resolve to stand firm, they put tremendous pressure on the American alliance by keeping the Soviets interested in a peaceful settlement.

Obviously, Iraq's move to free foreign hostages is another tactic to postpone or prevent military action against occupied Kuwait and Iraq. This may prove a tough challenge for the Bush administration. Humanitarian considerations, prompted by popular desires to repatriate fellow countrymen, add more obstacles to Washington's effort to build support for military action.

As the buildup of the US military forces in Saudi Arabia progresses, opposition to military action mounts. That the momentum of public support will be lost at a time when the US military deployment is completed is a serious danger.

Saddam Hussein is counting on this scenario. He is exploiting the ``weaknesses'' of the Western world - the inefficiency of democracy and the respect for human life. In Saddam's calculations, the Arab world will eventually support him while the international and domestic support for President Bush will erode. He still remembers Washington's unsuccessful effort to persuade the UN to impose its will upon Iran. Indeed, the UN failed not only in ending the Gulf war but also in imposing an arms embargo against Tehran.

President Bush said in a recent CNN interview that he was ``dead serious.'' For Saddam, this is still just ``talk.'' By his standards, ``dead serious'' means a nuclear attack on Baghdad. He won't budge until he senses a real threat of destruction.

To thwart Saddam's strategy, the world should not give him room for manipulation. The more time passes, the more death and damages occur in Kuwait. World leaders should dismiss Saddam's inhumane ``good gesture'' and increase pressure on Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait unconditionally.

The lure of returning hostages is strong, but the world should stand firm against Baghdad's cruel ``human juggling.'' As Secretary Baker correctly said, this state-sponsored hostage-taking should not have happened in the first place.

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