Saddam Hussein's televised appearance yesterday with two dozen British captives in Iraq underscores the enormously complex nature of the hostage crisis now confronting the United States and Britain, according to terrorism specialists and government experts.

The detention in secret Iraqi locations of nearly 200 American and British citizens, as the potential for military conflict mounts, has made this a far different crisis than that experienced with captured Americans in Lebanon and Iran over the last decade, these specialists said. Experts interpreted Saddam's half-hour visit to the British men, women and children as a dramatic bid to use the hostages as a psychological weapon to forestall any military attack -- and try to create sympathy for his plight.

Although all hostage episodes pose difficult risks, specialists said it would be almost impossible to rescue the trapped Americans and Britons Saddam has said are being held at critical military and industrial locations. This is because of the large number of hostages, the possibility that they have been scattered around the country, and the potential of any rescue mission to ignite a war.

Dressed in civilian clothes, Saddam ruffled the hair of a young boy in blue shorts as he talked with the Britons, most of whom were casually dressed and sat on couches and chairs. Two uniformed soldiers stood behind Saddam, one taking notes; the session ended with a group photo. The half-hour meeting, taped and later broadcast by Baghdad television, drew sharp protests from Washington and London.

Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman at the Rand Corp., commenting on Saddam's tactic, said, "If any further evidence were needed that Saddam Hussein is not a lunatic and in fact is a calculating, intelligent and cunning individual, it comes with the hostages on television . . . and acting, as his spokesman claims, as if they are 'guests,' " he said.

"He's so different from any adversary we've faced," Hoffman added. "Yes, he's definitely ruthless, but he's unbelieveably shrewd and he knows how to manipulate the media. He's learned the public relations lesson that goes back to 1979 -- that {hostages are} a high-visibility subject, it's calculated to strike a responsive chord."

In past hostages episodes, the taking of hostages initially has angered the American public, he added, "but over a long time, {it has created} frustration, and anger becomes directed at a presidential administration because of their inability to resolve the crisis."

Saddam's goal "is obviously to prevent any direct military action against Iraq and try to spin the crisis out. He's using whatever weapons are available to him, including psychological tactics."

By singling out British captives, Hoffman said Saddam is making "a deliberate effort to attempt to split the United States and its allies. This is the next step. Even if a lot of people in the states are saying we have to take military action, a lot in Europe are saying we haven't exhausted the diplomatic remedies."

Thousands of westerners have been trapped in Iraq and Kuwait. U.S. officials said 56 Americans currently are being detained by the Iraqis, and American diplomats have been denied access to them. The Iraqis have rounded up a total of 137 British citizens in Kuwait Both British and American officials said they have received reports that some of the citizens are being held at military and industrial sites, but their precise locations are not known.

Veterans of the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans were held for 444 days by so-called revolutionary "students", and the Reagan administration's experience in Lebanon said the current crisis poses different challenges -- and opportunities -- for the United States.

One difference is that the end of the Cold War has made a superpower conflagration less likely. The fear of accidentally setting off a regional conflict with Moscow -- the Soviets had just invaded neighboring Afghanistan -- was "the primary constraint" leading then-President Jimmy Carter not to use force against Iran in 1980, recalled his former press secretary, Jody Powell.

"There's just no question it's like night and day having the U.S-Soviet rivalry removed from a conflict like this," said former Assistant Secretary of State Harold H. Saunders, who headed the Iran Working Group during the Carter administation crisis.

In both the Iran and Lebanon episodes, American decision-makers struggled to find someone reliable to deal with in seeking release of the captives. Even today, U.S. officials are hamstrung by not knowing which of the shadowy terrorist groups in Lebanon still hold six Americans hostage.

But in Iraq, U.S. officials are dealing with a government directly responsible for the detention. One administration official said the plight of these hostages is less akin to the Beirut and Tehran captives than to that of citizens caught up in a war. Although they have not made the case publicly, U.S. officials believe the hostages fall under the 1948 Geneva Convention, which requires that innocent civilians be protected at times of military conflict and prohibits using them to shield military installations.

Both the Reagan and Bush administrations have made much of the principle of not making concessions to terrorists. But both presidents, as well as Carter, have said they would be willing to discuss the captives. Saunders said if the question is "whether or not you talk with the perpetrators -- of course you do. That's not paying ransom. It's not whether you are going to negotiate, but whether you are going to reward the guy." In this crisis, U.S. diplomats have been in almost constant contact with Iraqi officials in Baghdad, although there have been no direct high-level contacts.

Meanwhile, the large numbers of Americans in Iraq and Kuwait -- those held in detention and those still outside Iraqi custody -- make it much more difficult to insure their safety, particularly if a war begins over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The combined total of nearly 7,000 American and British citizens "dwarfs any previous crisis and obviously exponentially increases the problems faced by the United States," said Hoffman.

Thus the most ominous circumstance now confronting American decision-makers is the intertwining of the hostages' plight with any decisions on the use of military force against Iraq. Any decision by President Bush to launch an air strike at Iraq or Iraqi-held Kuwait could lead immediately to retribution against the hostages.

"We hadn't been in a state of war with Lebanon or Iran," said Noel Koch, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan years and a counter-terrorism expert. In effect, he said, the current hostages may "share the fate of the combatants" if war breaks out.

Koch said a military rescue operation would be nearly impossible. "First you have to locate them. Second, you have to move more quickly than their captors," he said.

In addition, he said, "we don't have the resources to do it . . . in terms of our own counter-terrorism capabilities" if the hostages are located at many remote locations. "You've got to be able to get in without discovery, without losing surprise, and you've got to be able to get out without losing hostages."