The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee warned yesterday that the United States should not allow policy decision- making in the Middle East crisis to be "paralyzed" by concern over Americans held in Kuwait and Iraq.
Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), appearing on NBC's "Meet The Press," said concern for the Americans must be balanced by "not letting our policy be driven by the existence of hostages or be paralyzed by it."
"We are in a world in which the use of military force anywhere in the world is likely to raise the issue of hostages," he said. "So we've got to learn to live with the problem. Hostages are a fact of life."
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), second-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he agreed. Appearing on the same broadcast, Hamilton said, "An American president does have a responsibility to citizens who are held against their will in a country. That's a very high priority and it weighs very heavily on a president and any leader in this government. But that's not the only interest involved here."
Hamilton said the United States also has an interest in stability in the Persian Gulf area. "We have an interest in the free flow of oil at reasonable prices in the gulf," he said.
Aspin said that does not mean writing off the approximately 3,000 U.S. citizens trapped in Kuwait and Iraq. "You say to Saddam Hussein, 'You are responsible for the safety of those hostages and we are holding you responsible,' " Aspin said. Unlike the hostage situation in Lebanon, where the captors are unknown, he said, "We at least know the address of the person responsible so if we need to send a message, we know where to send it."
Iraq has ordered U.S. and British citizens in Kuwait to gather at two hotels in the capital. In the meantime, there were reports that 35 Americans may have been moved from their hotel in Baghdad to military sites in Iraq that would be likely targets of any U.S. air attacks.
Robert M. Kimmitt, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said yesterday on "Meet the Press" that U.S. officials in Kuwait and Iraq were in touch with as many U.S. citizens as possible in an effort to keep them informed, and are telling those in Kuwait to stay home if possible but not to resist if the Iraqis try to take them to a hotel.
Kimmitt said the government is not sure where the Iraqis had taken the 35 Americans. "We think they're in another hotel in Baghdad," he said. He said there is no evidence that Iraq had moved the 35 to military sites.
CBS reported yesterday that another 35 Americans had made their way to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, apparently with the help of embassy officials. The State Department declined to comment on the report.
Although Aspin and Hamilton referred to the detained Americans as "hostages," Kimmitt refused to use the word. "Our goal is to get these people out and to take whatever steps we think will contribute to that," he said. "I think a semantical debate over definitions does not help us achieve that goal."
Thomas R. Pickering, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, used the word hostages during a debate, but he apparently is the only U.S. official to have done so publicly.
In the meantime, relatives of the Americans being held continued their fearful wait.
The Rev. Edwin Davis of Koran, La., called the situation "ominous" and said he had not heard from the State Department about the fate of his daughter and his two grandchildren since Friday night. His daughter is married to a Kuwaiti.
Patricia Hale of Spring, Tex., whose husband, Edward, a drilling rig supervisor, is one of the 35 Americans held in a Baghdad hotel, said the State Department told her yesterday that her husband had been moved to an unknown place. But Hale said she was not yet prepared to call her husband a hostage.
"Until our government calls these people hostages, I would rather not," she said.
Edward Baznor -- whose son Kevin, his wife and two small children are also among the Americans being held in Baghdad -- said he had not heard from the State Department since Friday. "It's gotten so confused I don't know which end is up," Baznor said yesterday from his home in Palm Desert, Calif.
Baznor said he admired President Bush's "firmness" but hoped the president would try negotiations before starting a war. "We're not going to lose anything with negotiations," he said.