Freeing Iraq's Prisoners

TALK about military options to free the two Americans imprisoned by Iraq could have the opposite effect. By escalating this unfortunate incident into a major confrontation, it could prolong their stay in an Iraqi cell.

This drama is unfolding at a critical point in the relations between Saddam Hussein's regime and the international alliance that crushed the Iraqi Army during the Gulf war. A system to monitor Saddam's military machine is largely in place, and Iraq has come forth with much -- but by no means all -- of the information demanded by the United Nations team overseeing the dismantling of its weapons of mass destruction.

It's possible that within the year the United States, the main force behind efforts to keep tight economic sanctions on Iraq, will find most of its Gulf war coalition partners pushing for the loosening of those sanctions. France and Russia are already doing so.

Commercial considerations -- Western demand for Iraqi oil -- and human-itarian concerns within Iraq are both adding to pressures for a resolution with that country. The US and other UN members who would like to keep the sanctions intact have just proposed a liberalized plan to let Iraq sell oil to relieve the nutritional problems faced by its people. Baghdad turned it down, apparently confident of a better deal not too far down the line.

With things tending in his direction, why does Saddam choose this moment to slap an eight-year jail sentence on two Americans, airplane technicians working in Kuwait, who mistakenly crossed his border? How is this going to help Iraq's sanctions cause?

The answers lie deep in Saddam's inner councils, where the prevailing view may be that the US will never change its position on sanctions and any opportunity for some nationalistic self-assertion at Washington's expense is welcome. And the bigger the incident, the better.

Intense, quiet diplomacy eventually freed another American seized by Iraq in 1993. That took six months. The same kind of effort may be more difficult now, but it's still the best option. Blustery talk about military operations may play right into Saddam's hands.

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