The Clinton Administration, while reminding Iraqi authorities of the wartime devastation they suffered four years ago, said Monday it hopes diplomacy will secure the release of two Americans imprisoned for illegal entry into Iraq.
"We believe that quiet diplomacy will work in this case," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said.
At the State Department, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said the United States will be seeking a "prompt and peaceful solution" to the issue with the help of friends and allies that have offered support.
Neither Christopher nor McCurry ruled out the possibility of using military force.
"We don't rule out or rule in options that the President might want to consider at some point," McCurry said.
Later, when pressed on comments by a prominent Republican senator that President Clinton should make clear his military options, McCurry said, "I think based on recent history, there's probably no doubt in the minds of the government of Iraq that the United States has military options at its disposal."
It was a pointed reminder of the military defeat of Iraq four years ago at the hands of a U.S.-led coalition.
Christopher noted that diplomacy helped achieve the early release of oilman Kenneth Beaty, the last American imprisoned by Iraq. Beaty received an eight-year sentence but served 205 days. He was released in November, 1993.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a presidential candidate, suggested Sunday that Clinton consider all diplomatic and military options "publicly, firmly and quickly."
McCurry appeared to dismiss the suggestion as campaign oratory. "Some Americans are running for President. I'll kind of leave the rhetoric to them," he said.
Another GOP presidential candidate, Patrick J. Buchanan, has stressed the need to move diplomatically while impressing upon the Iraqis the threat of force.
The two Americans, David Daliberti, 41, of Jacksonville, Fla., and William Barloon, 39, of New Hampton, Iowa, were sentenced Saturday to eight years in prison. They were captured by Iraqi authorities March 13.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Christine Shelly described prison conditions in Iraq as "notoriously grim."
The men are being held at an Iraqi immigration detention center and are expected to be transferred soon to a Baghdad prison. Both are employees of U.S. defense contractors in Kuwait.
"The sentences were unjustified," Christopher said. "These men strayed into Iraq, and we certainly think they should be promptly released. There's no basis for the kind of sentences that were imposed."
In Baghdad, Saadi Mahdi Saleh, Speaker of the National Assembly, sent mixed signals in an Associated Press interview about the fate of the Americans, implying that they may have been sent on a sabotage mission but also suggesting that leniency was still possible.
Shelly dismissed as "preposterous" the suggestion that the Americans were intent on sabotage.