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Former hostages say past is past

A funny thing happened this Freedom Day, and the one before that and the one before that. The date came and went, and few people noticed, not even most of the 52 Americans once held hostage in Iran.

"We don't usually celebrate it anymore," the top diplomatic hostage, Bruce Laingen, said of the anniversary of their Jan. 20, 1981, release after 444 days in captivity. "Most of us have put it behind us a long time ago."If only Iran and the United States could do the same, former hostages say. Most have long advocated the U.S. government reopen an official dialogue with the Islamic state and, one day, renew relations.

"It's long overdue," said Kevin Hermening, a former Marine sergeant who at 21 was the youngest hostage.

Married now with two children, the financial planner and school board president in Wisconsin said his life is far removed from those dark days of occasional beatings and mock executions, boredom and bad meals.

Of their captivity, the former hostages say past is past - not ever really forgotten nor perhaps even forgiven, but history all the same.

"The political fallout continues, but the emotional fallout should have been put aside 15, 16 years ago," said Mike Metrinko, 51, a political officer held hostage. "So much has happened since."

The two governments are making moves toward making up.

In a Jan. 7 CNN interview, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric, came close to an apology for the hostage-taking by student militants. He expressed regret for the defining event of the Islamic revolution that deposed the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, whose authoritarian family rule spanned more than a half-century. The overthrow also severed official U.S.-Iran ties.

"Not only do we not harbor any ill wishes for the American people, but in fact we consider them to be a great nation," Khatami said, suggesting more cultural and educational exchanges to open "a crack in the wall of mistrust" between the two countries.

President Clinton has expressed dismay over the diplomatic rift. After Khatami's surprising election last May, Clinton said: "I have never been pleased with the estrangements between the people of the United States and the people of Iran. I hope the estrangements can be bridged."

On Jan. 29, Clinton used the end of Islam's holiest month of Ramadan to reach out to Iranians and endorse Khatami's call for more people-to-people exchanges.

"We have real differences with some Iranian policies, but I believe these are not insurmountable," he said in a videotaped message. "I hope that we have more exchanges between our people and that the day will soon come when we can enjoy once again good relations with Iran."

But the United States insists that government-to-government dialogue won't happen until Tehran renounces terrorism, opposition to the Middle East peace process and weapons of mass destruction. That is something neither Khatami nor the Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, the supreme religious leader, appear ready to do in a nation fueled for two decades by Islamic fervor and the slogan "Death to America!"

In fact, on Jan. 20 - the 17th anniversary of the hostages' release - Khatami played to that hardline audience when he visited a shrine marking revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini's grave. "In today's world we do not need the United States to come close to us and help us," he said.

Laingen, the charge d'affaires when militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, said he expects backdoor diplomacy between the United States and Iran, in neutral countries and through third parties - much like with China and America in the 1970s. "There's a strong compulsion on both sides to do something about this estrangement. But I expect they'll move rather slowly, carefully," said Laingen, 75.

Barry Rosen, 53, wants to speed things up, even suggesting that he and other former hostages go back to Iran as a symbol of a new era.