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THE CLINTON administration should not only employ firm diplomacy in demanding the release of the two Americans who strayed across the border into Iraq. It should also keep open military force as an option if that diplomacy fails.

The two Americans -- William Barloon of Iowa and David Daliberti of Florida -- were working for a private contractor in Kuwait. They apparently strayed by accident into Iraq on March 13 on a visit to a friend in the United Nations forces that monitor the Kuwait-Iraqi border.

What is puzzling is that to cross the border into Iraq the two Americans passed through checkpoints manned first by U.N. personnel and then by Iraqi personnel. They were arrested by the Iraqis as they were headed back toward Kuwait.

The two Americans, then, were not the only ones confused as night fell along that border. Their stiff eight-year sentence cannot, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher insists, be justified.

There is a hollow ring to the Iraqi charge that the two were either planning espionage, an accusation later withdrawn, or intending to create an international incident. Where is the evidence? They were inside Iraqi territo
ry only a short time and were permitted in, mistakenly, by U.N. and Iraqi border guards. Surely these guards share responsibility for the confusion.

Since the United States, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, has no direct diplomatic relations with Iraq, Polish diplomats represent U.S. interests in Baghdad.

Those interests include a rejection of Iraq's efforts to link freedom for the two Americans to a relaxation of the international sanctions that bar Iraq from selling oil. The United States wants the sanctions in place until Saddam Hussein's government meets certain requirements, including an improved human rights record. Imprisoning Americans on trumped-up charges doesn't point in that direction.

The interests of the United States also include the quick release of these two workers. Hopefully, firm diplomacy will succeed. But diplomacy has its limits. The longer the Americans are detained, the closer diplomacy comes to failure and the clearer it becomes that the two men are hostages.

Before too long, hostages are what they should be considered. Then the options for securing their release should broaden and include the possibility of military action.

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