Few watched the televised return of 47 American captives from Iraq yesterday as intensely as the families and friends of those held hostage there.

Hoping against hope to spot a loved one, they scanned the television screen expectantly. But more often than not, family members said, they had to struggle to hide their disappointment when they did not see anyone they recognized.

"Of course we are glad some people are being released. It's a sign that others might someday follow. But we're disappointed when the people we see are not ours," said Irene Davis, of Koran, La., in a telephone interview yesterday.

Davis's daughter, Martha, 42, her two teenage grandchildren and her son-in-law were vacationing in Kuwait when Iraq invaded. Martha called her mother the morning of the invasion and said military helicopters were circling Kuwait City. Davis hasn't heard from her since.

Watching the television was all the more painful for Scott Gerard, of New Harmony, Ind. His sister-in-law, Joan Khaja, 26, is seven months pregnant with her third child.

"We thought she would be one of the medical emergencies on the plane. She had complications before she left for Kuwait due to stress, and I can only assume this situation is probably making her stressful again," Gerard said.

Khaja had left in July with her two children, ages 1 and 2, to visit her husband's family. Her husband, Muhammad Khaja, remained behind in New Harmony.

As the Middle East crisis enters its second month, families of American hostages in Iraq and Kuwait are increasingly frustrated by a drama that seems unlikely to end soon and divided about what the United States should do next.

"How long are we going to stand for this?" asked Conrad Gicking, of Arlington, Tenn., whose daughter, Denise Lynn Ali, 25, has been living in Kuwait with her husband, a Kuwaiti, and their year-old son.

"We should just go in a covert operation and just take {Iraq's Saddam Hussein} out, kill him. The Iraqi people don't want to fight. If we get rid of him, our problems are solved."

Gicking acknowledged that any action against Saddam could put his family members in jeopardy, but he said they already are at risk. He has not heard from them since Iraq invaded Kuwait.

"I don't want anyone to die. I want my family home," Gicking said.

Other hostage families around the country interviewed last week are hoping for a diplomatic solution because they fear military action could threaten their relatives' safety.

"The worst thing Bush could do would be to go after Iraq," said a Sacramento, Calif., woman whose 30-year-old son is in Kuwait. She did not want to be identified for fear it might endanger him. "All this posturing," she said, "it's just insane, and my boy is in the middle."

Many relatives said they support President Bush's massive deployment of troops to Saudi Arabia.

"It's all very frightening, but I think we're doing what we should," Davis said.

But other relatives of hostages said they are too personally involved to judge the U.S. government's actions objectively.

"Those of us who have family involved are coming from an emotional level," said Patricia Hale, of Spring, Tex., whose husband, Edward, 52, was working on an oil rig near the Iraq-Kuwait border when Saddam's troops invaded.

"I feel helpless, like there's nothing I can do, but it accomplishes nothing to sit here and criticize the government or anyone else. I don't know what they know . . . . I only know what I'm feeling."

The State Department has estimated that 1,500 Americans are in Kuwait and Iraq, and the whereabouts of most are unknown.

Iraqi troops rounded up dozens of Westerners in the two countries after the Aug. 2 invasion and took them to Baghdad hotels and possibly to Iraqi strategic facilities, including chemical weapons plants.

Some Americans are believed to still be in hiding in Kuwait, although the shutdown of communications to that country has left the State Department, as well as family members here, uncertain about their fate.

Leslie Kern, a Columbus, Ohio, psychologist who helped to set up a telephone counseling service for hostages' families, said the families may begin to feel more helpless because they are realizing that the Middle East crisis could continue for some time.

"As the crisis goes on, close relatives and other people who have been comforting them don't know what else to say," said Kern, whose counseling service, USA GIVE, began operating last week and pairs volunteer psychologists with families for free counseling.

"There's a tremendous feeling of anxiety that builds as this goes on," Kern said. "After the initial attention, some {families} may begin to feel abandoned."

For the first four weeks of the crisis, family members said, they cried, prayed and tried to convince themselves that no news wasn't necessarily bad news.

But with little or no contact with relatives who were in the path of Iraq's invasion, family members say their initial fear and anger are being overwhelmed by a growing sense of helplessness.

At first, "we cried until we didn't have any more tears," said Davis. But now, after weeks of sleepless nights and tense days waiting by the phone, "we're just a little numb."

Davis's daughter and her husband, Mahaoud Al-Ghareeb, 45, an oil worker who maintained his Kuwaiti citizenship despite working for most of the past 20 years in this country, were in the middle of a three-week visit with his mother in Kuwait with their children, Millie, 18, and Michael, 14.

In their tiny community 15 miles east of Shreveport, La., Davis and her husband, Edwin, a retired Baptist minister, said they have been comforted by neighbors who, in a small-town tradition for troubled times, have brought them food.

"Everyone's been drawn closer," said Davis, her voice breaking. "There's so much food here, and we don't need it . . . . I wish I could get it to my grandchildren. They're the ones who need it."

Some families have found comfort by contacting each other through loosely organized telephone networks. Patricia Hale said she is in frequent communication with an Odessa, Tex., woman whose husband, like Hale's, worked for OGE Drilling.

"It helps to have someone to talk to," said Hale, who last saw her husband in May, when he returned from Kuwait for a weeklong vacation.

The Hales, whose fortunes plummeted with the oil industry's in the mid-1980s, were using the money from Edward's new job to get back on their feet. Patricia Hale, who has had a lung illness, had planned to join her husband in two or three months until she received word that Iraqi troops had taken him from his rig to the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad.

"I've tried to keep myself thinking as positive as I could," Hale said. "There's just this terrible anger, and I don't know where to direct it . . . . I'm not one who cries a lot, but in the past few weeks I'd be talking in a conversation and break out crying. There's just nothing I can do for him."

She received word from the State Department that Edward Hale was seen at the hotel a week after the invasion. She said yesterday that she still does not know his exact whereabouts.

Like some other members of the hostages' families, Gicking, 46, said he is upset each time a U.S. television network airs an interview with Saddam, believing that such exposure gives the Iraqi leader legitimacy and strengthens his resolve to hold onto Kuwait and his hostages.

Gicking is an alderman in Arlington, about 15 miles east of Memphis. His daughter, Denise, met her husband, Essam Ali, 28, while both were students at the University of Tennessee at Martin.

He said his daughter's birthday was Aug. 12, but he did not feel like celebrating.

"We'll take care of that when this is over," he said. "Right now we've got more important things on our minds . . . like hoping this ends soon."