THE release of two Western hostages yesterday in Beirut is further proof of the diminished power of Shiite Muslim militias operating in Lebanon and the growing strength of the Syrian-backed Lebanese authorities.One group freed Frenchman Jme Leyraud early yesterday morning after just three days of captivity, and another organization released Edward Tracy, an American held for almost five years, several hours later. The quick release of Mr. Leyraud indicates that the Iranian and Syrian governments can together influence the actions of radicals opposed to events underway in the region. On Saturday, hours before Leyraud's release, visiting Iranian Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri met with the reputed spiritual mentor of the pro-Iranian Hizbullah group, Sheikh Hussein Fadlallah, and a powerful pro-Syrian figure within Hizbullah, Hussein Mousawi, at the Iranian Embassy here. In the meantime, Western governments await the release of the remaining 11 Western hostages in Lebanon.
Massive raids The freedom of Leyraud followed what Lebanese police called massive overnight house-to-house raids in Beirut. Leyraud was seized only hours after British journalist John McCarthy was released last Thursday. Leyraud's captors, calling themselves the Organization for the Defense of the Prisoners' Rights, were believed to be yet another of the numerous Shiite militias operating under the umbrella of the Hizbullah, or party of God. The capture of Leyraud, an administrator spending the summer in Beirut for the French benevolent organization Medecins du Monde, was seen as a ploy by extremists bent on cutting short a release of the other Western hostages. The group claimed it would kill Leyraud if any Western hostage were released without the reciprocal release of Arab prisoners, mostly Palestinian and Iranian, held in Israel and Germany. Those threats were apparently overturned by the combined pressures of the Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese governments. But few observers here were willing to rule out the possibility of still more last-minute hitches in the promised liberation of other Western hostages. Late last week, Syrian sources blamed the new hostage taking on infighting between Hizbullah factions. According to Syrian sources, hard-liners within the Iranian government are playing out their opposition to recent Middle Eastern developments through one of the fundamentalist Hizbullah groups. Those developments range from Iran's new contacts with the West and Gulf states to the American Middle East peace initiative. "Iran was very much behind the release of McCarthy. They want to open channels to the British," a Syrian official told the Monitor. "There were several agreements between the Syrians and Iranians to stop this [hostage taking]. It has not served its purpose, if there ever was a purpose. It has gone too far. It's time to put an end to it. But it seems that they [Iranian government officials] don't have control," he said. Earlier this year in Beirut, a senior Hizbullah leader, Sheikh Sobih al-Tofeili, was ousted by the more moderate Sheikh Abbas Mousawi. Mr. Tofeili is a supporter of the radical Iranian member of Parliament and former interior minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi. This faction - extremists led by Mr. Mohtashemi - is trying to prevent the Iranian government from going along with the plans prepared for the area. They are trying to put a brake on attempts to improve relations with the West, the source says. Mohtashemi was sacked by Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani and is his most determined rival. (Mohtashemi helped organize Hizbullah while ambassador to Syria in the early 1980s.) Mr. Rafsanjani, as part of efforts to improve relations with the West, has joined Syria in trying to restrict and control the activities of terrorist groups which have in the past received Iranian backing. Unlike Toufeili, the source says, the pro-Syrian Mousawi had agreed to Iranian and Syrian pressure to release hostages. (Abbas and Hussein Mousawi are members of the same family.) "The Iranian Government tried several times with the Hizbullah to convince Toufeili to release the hostages," the Syrian says, adding, "[Abbas] Mousawi is an acceptable person - not only for the Iranians but also for us. There were a lot of contacts, and recently there was agreement to release a British hostage."
A link to a murder He linked last week's murder of a former Iranian prime minister to what he called the faction's "counteroffensive" against the emerging Iranian rapprochement with the West. Shahpur Bakhtiar, the last prime minister in the Shah of Iran's government, was killed at his well-guarded home west of Paris. Bakhtiar was a staunch critic of the radical regime which came to power in the 1979 revolution. "The faction is now becoming very active, working against the interests of the Iranian government," he says. "What does it mean to assassinate Bakhtiar? Only an embarrassment to the Iranian government. What does it mean to kidnap a Frenchman but to embarrass the Iranian government? "This is also very embarrassing for Syria - for someone to be kidnapped in Lebanon now, at a time when a hostage is being released."