SADDAM HUSSEIN may have been swayed by the humanitarian pleas of Congressman Bill Richardson in deciding to release two Americans prisoners. But more likely, the Iraqi leader concluded that freeing the men might help free him from international sanctions.
Saddam has reason to be anxious. His clan-centered power base is showing cracks, most clearly in the Iraqi military. He has removed a savagely hard-line defense minister and may be considering other moves to give his government a somewhat softer face. Release of the Americans fits with this.
But even a more kindly image isn't likely to get sanctions lifted soon. Iraq's recent admission that it had developed biological weapons was an important step toward full compliance with UN criteria for lifting sanctions. But questions about Iraq's capacity to produce more germ weapons could take months to answer.
Meanwhile, French, Russian, and other European businessmen would love to reopen the Iraqi oil spigot. A big push in this direction could come this September when the UN General Assembly reconvenes and the sanctions are again up for renewal.
Iraq's people suffer from a crumbling economy. Saddam could alleviate their plight by accepting UN offers for limited oil sales, with revenues earmarked for relief. But he has refused, claiming infringement of sovereignty.
Infringement of sovereignty, Kuwait's, was what precipitated this situation. Iraq has already yielded much of its sovereignty to UN-mandated safe zones and inspection requirements. Saddam may try to hold on to what shreds remain and stonewall the few remaining UN criteria - such as accounting for Kuwaitis seized during the war. Or the Americans' release may signal a more cooperative attitude in Baghdad. That, ironically, could pose new problems for those in Washington who want to keep the sanctions clamped on, regardless, until Saddam is toppled from within.