JOHN BIERMAN August 14 1989



JOHN BIERMAN August 14 1989

They were the shocking images of a deadly game. In one, the body, claimed to be that of a U.S. marine colonel, twisted slowly at the end of the rope from which he had been hanged. In the other, an American university administrator bade an emotional farewell to his wife as he awaited execution. The two videotaped sequences last week brought the Middle East hostage situation back to the forefront of world consciousness—and put the leaders of three nations on the spot. While President George Bush grappled with the first major crisis of his presidency, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir defended himself against charges of precipitating the crisis by ordering the abduction of a firebrand Moslem cleric. And Iran’s new president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, sought to reconcile his image as heir to the hard-line Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini with the need to improve relations with the West by preventing the execution of Western hostages. At week’s end, diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis appeared to be succeeding, as the captors of Jospeh Cicippio, the U.S. citizen under immediate sentence of death, announced the “freezing” of his execution.

Outrage: But it had been a week of great danger, both for Cicippio personally and for the fragile peace of the Middle East. All week long, as the drama unfolded, much—perhaps all—had depended on the fate of Cicippio, the 58-year-old former acting comptroller of the American University of Beirut, who was kidnapped in September, 1986, by a group calling itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization. Earlier in the week, another pro-Iranian Lebanese terrorist group had released a videotape purporting to show the execution of U.S. marine Lt.-Col. William Higgins. That nightmarish videotape outraged Americans, and U.S. administration sources warned privately that if the terrorists carried out their threat to execute Cicippio as well, Bush would feel bound to respond with a military strike. According to a detailed report in The New York Times, that strike would have taken the form of a bombing attack from aircraft carriers on terrorist targets, including the Lebanese town of Baalbek, a stronghold of Hizbollah—the umbrella movement to which the Revolutionary Justice Organization and other pro-Iranian terrorist groups belong (page 28).

Suspense: It was not immediately clear whether diplomatic initiatives or the threat of military intervention—unstated, but strongly implied—eventually persuaded Cicippio’s captors to put his threatened execution on indefinite hold. In Cicippio’s home town of Norristown, Pa., family members and friends rejoiced at his reprieve after days of suspense, during which his execution deadline had been twice extended (page 24). For its part, the Israeli government held to a firm line throughout the week. Risking a U.S. public-opinion backlash if the apparent execution of Higgins should be followed by Cicippio’s death, the Israeli leadership insisted that it was justified in kidnapping the radical Shiite leader, Sheik Abdel Kareem Obeid, thus triggering the latest hostage crisis. The Israelis said they would free Obeid—and more than 150 other Lebanese Shiite prisoners—only in exchange for three captured Israeli soldiers and all Western hostages believed held by Hizbollah.

The Israelis seemed determined to adhere to those terms despite Hizbollah’s warning that, even after his reprieve, Cicippio’s life would again be in jeopardy if Israel did not release Obeid and an unspecified number of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners within days. Indeed, the Israelis seemed satisfied that, so far, they were ahead in the grim war of nerves, and they responded with cool caution to Hizbollah’s latest demands. “The less we talk, the better,” said foreign ministry spokesman Alon Liel after an emergency meeting of a government crisis committee. And although—publicly, at least—Hizbollah still refused to consider an exchange, there was some evidence that negotiations were being conducted through third parties. Certainly, that was the impression given by Shamir when he told an Israeli radio interviewer, “We are in the middle of an operation, and we hope that we will complete it successfully.”

A major figure in that process was Rafsanjani, who—only hours before Cicippio was seen pleading for his life on television—became Iran’s new president, with wide executive powers. The timing was critical. Western intelligence sources said that Hizbollah owed allegiance to Tehran. But they were uncertain whether Rafsanjani, so early in his presidency, had the political strength to defy the hardliners in his own government—especially Hizbollah’s most influential supporter, Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi—and intervene on behalf of the hostages. Still, the announcement by Cicippio’s captors—within hours of Rafsanjani’s taking office—that they were “freezing” his death sentence indicated that the new president did, in fact, have the power to pursue a pragmatic policy line of his own.

Solution: Rafsanjani swiftly provided further evidence that he was prepared to play a conciliatory role. Speaking to a huge crowd at Tehran’s traditional Friday prayers, the Iranian leader delivered the usual condemnation of the United States and Israel, but he added: “I address the White House. There is a solution for Lebanon, a solution for freeing the hostages. Take a sensible attitude, and we will help solve the problems there, so that the people of the region may live in peace and friendship.” That unusually conciliatory language drew a swift response from Bush: “When you see a statement that offers hope about the return of our hostages, I want to explore it to the fullest.” He added, “I don’t want to raise hopes beyond fulfilment, but there’s reason to be somewhat encouraged.”

The latest crisis in the protracted Lebanese hostage drama originated with an Israeli commando operation in the early hours of July 28. As Israeli jets roared overhead to drown the clatter of their helicopters, a handpicked 12-man squad landed on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese village of Jibchit and made its way silently to the house of Obeid, the village religious leader. There, the Israeli soldiers seized Obeid and two associates, leaving his wife and five children unharmed. But a neighbor who appeared at his front door was shot and killed by the Israelis as they left with their captives.

For the Israelis, the kidnapping was a result of the failure of lengthy attempts to negotiate the release of two soldiers and one airman captured and held by Hizbollah. According to Israeli intelligence, Obeid was not only a local cleric, but also—as Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the Knesset (parliament) last week—“a central figure” in Hizbollah. Indeed, Rabin claimed that Obeid personally approved “almost every significant attack carried out by Hizbollah in southern Lebanon in the past few years.” The actions Rabin referred to included the kidnapping of Higgins, who was commander of the Lebanon Observer Group—part of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization— when he was abducted in February, 1988, near Tyre in southern Lebanon.

Gallows: Hizbollah has all along alleged that Higgins was a spy, and its first response to Obeid’s abduction was to threaten to execute him. On July 31, following Israel’s refusal to release Obeid, a group calling itself the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth delivered a typewritten statement to a news agency in Beirut saying that it had carried out the execution. Accompanying the message was a videotape that showed a man, who closely resembled the colonel, hanging from a rope on a makeshift indoor gallows.

Still, although U.S. officials believe that the hanged man almost certainly was the 44-year-old Vietnam veteran and onetime aide to former defence secretary Caspar Weinberger, they had doubts over the timing of his death. CIA officials concluded that Higgins may have been killed earlier than last week. They speculated that he might have been executed by some other means—and his body subsequently used in a mock hanging. For their part, Israeli intelligence sources claimed to have evidence that Higgins was killed some time last year, and they said that the videotape of his execution was saved until it could be used to the greatest political and psychological effect. In an attempt to test this belief, United Nations Undersecretary Gen. Marrack Goulding, who heads the world organization’s peacekeeping operations, flew to Lebanon last week. One of his tasks was to try to recover Higgins’s body, in which case a post-mortem examination could establish whether Higgins in fact was executed before the latest crisis erupted.

Whatever the circumstances of Higgins’s death, Hizbollah’s announcement of his execution sent a wave of horror and revulsion through the United States. A clearly shaken Bush hurriedly cancelled a cross-country trip and returned to the White House. There, after meeting with senior aides and congressional leaders, he told reporters that the American people had been “shocked right to the core.” Some U.S. newspapers reflected that sense of outrage. The tabloid New York Post carried a one-word headline on its front page: “Bastards!”

Haggard: The following three days of suspense over the fate of Cicippio added to the public anger. The mounting crisis reached a harrowing peak with Thursday’s delivery to a Beirut newspaper office of a videotape in which Cicippio, facing possible execution within hours, was seen reading a statement in ungrammatical English that had clearly been written by his captors. Haggard, bearded and obviously under enormous emotional stress—but refraining from correcting his captors’ fractured English—Cicippio declared: “I appeal to each person having honor who can move to release Sheik Abdel Kareem Obeid, don’t be late because they are serious to hang us. The period become very soon and the hours very little.” Cicippio, a former Roman Catholic who converted to the Sunni branch of Islam, concluded with a moving message to his Lebanese wife, Elham: “Goodbye my wife. If you don’t hear my voice and see my face again, I want you to look after yourself and don’t be sad, and always remember me.”

Some six hours later, Cicippio’s captors announced the temporary suspension of his death sentence. Exactly what factors induced Hizbollah to put his execution on indefinite hold were not clear. But official sources in Washington and the Middle East said that there were strong indications that Rafsanjani had been instrumental in persuading the kidnappers to relent. U.S. state department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said, “We have been in touch with Iran through a variety of channels and, at this time, have no reason to believe that Iran is not dealing with this matter in a serious way.” Despite the double negative, Tutwiler’s message seemed clear: Iran was helping with the international efforts to ease the crisis.

Indeed, the crisis brought offers of diplomatic assistance from a number of countries, among them Syria, the Soviet Union and Algeria, which has proved particularly helpful in past hostage crises. In a statement following the announcement of the freeze on Cicippio’s execution, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that about a dozen countries had been involved in the diplomatic efforts to save him.

Action: Still, the White House did not yet consider the crisis over. A powerful U.S. naval force—including the aircraft carrier Coral Sea and the battleship Iowa—continued on course toward the eastern Mediterranean. And, in Washington, the Senate passed a resolution giving blanket approval to any “appropriate retaliatory action” the President should decide to take.

Meanwhile, in contrast to Israeli claims of Obeid’s importance in the ranks of Hizbollah, some diplomats and journalists in Beirut characterized the abducted sheik as “a small fish.” However, that assessment appeared to be undermined by Hizbollah’s strenuous attempts to obtain his release. And, for its part, the CIA appeared to accept Israel’s evaluation of Obeid as a figure of sufficient importance to be a major bargaining chip. Western intelligence sources in Washington, D.C., said that transcripts of Obeid’s interrogation by his Israeli captors were being carefully scrutinized at CIA headquarters.

Other Western intelligence organizations, including Britain’s, were also interested in what Obeid had to tell his Israeli interrogators. Hizbollah factions are known to be holding four British citizens, including Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special envoy. The burly Waite, now 50, was abducted in January, 1987, while attempting to negotiate the release of hostages. Perhaps out of concern for Waite’s safety, the archbishop, Most Rev. Robert Runcie, “unreservedly” condemned the Israeli abduction of Obeid, which for a while seemed to pose a threat to Waite’s life as well as that of the American hostages. Declared the archbishop: “Kidnapping is an abominable crime, whoever commits it, and done by a state it is especially abominable.”

Israel’s abduction of Obeid, putting American lives at risk, also drew harsh criticism from some U.S. political figures. The normally pro-Israeli Senate minority leader, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, said on Capitol Hill, “I would hope the Israelis would take another look at some of their actions, which they must know in advance will endanger some American lives.” Added the veteran Republican: “Perhaps a little more responsibility on the part of the Israelis would be refreshing.” But other congressmen, such as Representative Charles Schumer, a New York state Democrat, defended the Israeli action. He said that to blame Israel for the crisis was akin to “making night day, it’s making black white.”

Clearly fearing a deterioration in traditionally close relations with Israel, House Speaker Thomas Foley said that “no greater goal could be sought” by the terrorists than to create ill feeling between the two nations. In fact, relations did not appear to suffer any serious damage, even though, at the beginning of the crisis, Bush himself had said of the Israeli action, “I don’t think kidnapping and violence help the cause of peace.”

In Israel itself, there appeared to be solid public support for Obeid’s abduction. Said Ze’ev Schiff, Israel’s leading military commentator, of Israeli actions in the crisis: “I don’t hear any dissenting voices.” And dovish former foreign minister Abba Eban said that to let Obeid go without securing the release of Israeli and other captives would be “a formidable victory for terrorism.”

Plight: By week’s end, with the immediate threat against Cicippio lifted and with the prospect of an eventual prisoner exchange, Israeli leaders were obviously convinced that their firm stand had been justified. Indeed, Rabin said that, by abducting Obeid, Israel had focused world attention anew on the plight of the Western hostages who remain captives in Lebanon. He added, “The fact that Israel took the initiative brought up the issue that too many people tried to forget.”

That seemed indeed to have happened, even though Israel's original aim had been only to obtain the release of its own captives. But more fundamental solutions to some of the bitter grievances dividing Lebanon and the Middle East may be necessary before Hizbollah will be willing to give up its human bargaining chips.