SINCE THE END OF THE GULF WAR IN 1991, VARIOUS American journalists, businessmen, even a bomb-disposal expert have found themselves in Iraqi jails after wandering across the border with Kuwait. In most cases they were held for a few days or weeks and then quietly released. But last week when two civilian defense contractors were detained after straying into southern Iraq, State Department officials were worried that this time they might not be so fortunate.

Choking in the grip of the U.N.'s economic sanctions, Saddam Hussein had in recent months tried a charm offensive, designed to persuade the U.S. to ease...

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