WASHINGTON — Hoping to avert what a Pentagon official called "a hostage situation," the Bush Administration contacted Iraqi diplomats in Washington, New York and Baghdad on Friday to demand the release of an American seized by an Iraqi military patrol while working on the Kuwaiti side of the Kuwait-Iraq border.
"We have a very clear intention of seeing him released immediately and safely," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, adding that in addition to direct contacts with the Iraqi government, the United States was working with the United Nations "to demand his release."
Abdul-Latif Khabbaj, a spokesman for the U.N. Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission, identified the American as Chad Hall, a munitions expert employed as a supervisor by a U.S. company.
The firm, Environmental Health Research & Testing Inc. of Lexington, Ky., was working under contract for the Kuwaiti Defense Ministry to clear unexploded ordnance left near the border after the Persian Gulf War.
Khabbaj said Hall was picked up Thursday afternoon about a mile from Camp Khor, the old Iraqi naval base that now houses the U.N. mission. Friends said he was led away at gunpoint.
Coming less than four weeks before the U.S. presidential election, the incident offers a new foreign policy challenge to President Bush. A prolonged hostage crisis could cause more trouble for the President's beleaguered campaign.
This was at least the third incident since the Gulf War in which the Iraqis have seized Westerners. Shortly after the war ended, they nabbed a U.S. ordnance specialist and two Philippine colleagues; the American was released after roughly a month's detention. The Iraqis also captured three Swedish technicians who took a wrong turn near the border, accused them of illegal activities, removed them to Baghdad and sentenced them to seven years in prison; a British tourist suffered a similar fate.
But Hall, a State Department official insisted, did not blunder into Iraqi territory and should not have been detained. "He was clearly in Kuwaiti territory," the official said. "He didn't bump into them; they came over to get him."
The Iraqi army has periodically sent patrols across the unmarked border in violation of the cease-fire agreement that ended the Gulf War, the official added.
According to the company's account of the incident, the Iraqis first approached two of the firm's Pakistani employees during regular working hours and told them they were in Iraqi territory--a contention the two disputed.
When Hall, the supervisor, intervened and suggested that the Iraqis contact U.N. headquarters to clear up the matter, they refused, the company said, instead commandeering a company vehicle and forcing Hall to accompany them.
Company and Administration officials declined to provide details about Hall personally, saying they are treating the episode as "a hostage situation" and want no information disclosed that might aid his captors.
But the Associated Press reported that Hall is in his 50s and is from the Houston area.
At the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoun, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, told reporters that Hall "is safe and in good health" and said he hopes the incident will not turn into a major crisis, the AP reported. Hamdoun said he had no instructions yet from his government about Hall's detention but added that he hoped "things could be resolved through diplomatic means rather than to get into any situation whereby a crisis may emerge."
The Polish ambassador in Baghdad, who looks after U.S. interests, said the Iraqi government promised him he would get information on the situation today.
Meanwhile, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government appealed to the United Nations to suspend all weapons inspections until after the U.S. election to prevent Washington from provoking a confrontation that might boost Bush's chances. The United Nations refused.
"The U.N. Special Commission has informed Iraq and has publicly announced that it will proceed with the next inspection, which is a missile inspection scheduled to begin on Oct. 16," Boucher said. "We agree with that. We think there's no reasonable basis for honoring Iraq's request. The Special Commission does not schedule its inspections in accordance with the election schedules of the United States or of any other country. We don't decide the schedule of inspections; neither do the Iraqis."