Feared 'Pink Panthers' prowl the battle-scarred streets of Beirut

Nassib Khatib prefers brown pinstripe suits from London and the casual chic of navy blue corduroy ensembles from Paris.

His spacious chandelier-lit living room in the posh residential section of west Beirut reinforces the image of his upper-class background, his polish and taste.

Sitting back comfortably on a gold-trimed tapestry loveseat, he seems an unlikely choice for commander of the most feared militia in Beirut.

Khatib and his ''Arab Cavaliers'' are deemed so formidable that the Western press, which regularly mingles with the likes of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Arab world's extremists, has been more than a little reluctant to write about the group, which appeared, seemingly from nowhere, six months ago.

Khatib laughs about the awe-told tales on the circuit in the Lebanese capital. He has already heard most of them, and to each he makes the upward little shrug that is a characteristically Arab way of saying ''nonsense.''

Yet of the dozens of militias and private armies that vie for power in embattled Beirut, the military wing of the Arab Democratic Party (ADP) has unquestionably become the most distinctive.

Even Beirut citizens were taken aback by the first sighting of a company of the Cavaliers last July - in flamboyant fatigues of shocking pink, patterned in green or red with parachutists, sailboats, and horsemen.

Most here have long forgotten the group's official title, for in the jungle that is Beirut, the troops' sporty gear led to their immediate dubbing as the ''Pink Panthers,'' although only after ''Rose Renegades,'' ''Khmer Rouge,'' and ''Red Indians'' had been discarded.

Khatib also chuckles, seemingly genuinely, about the nicknames. He appears unperturbed about the mocking implications, just as he does about the rampant rumors that made the Pink Panthers an overnight legend.

What about the stories that people disappeared after going to play tennis next to the Corniche football field that has become the Cavaliers' main base?

Like the lawyer he once was, Khatib argues his case methodically: ''Give me one name, just one,'' he responds, laughing again at what he contends is one of many such outrageous reports.

What about the allegations that his troops are demanding ''protection fees'' from nearby residents?

''If any person (under my command) takes anything by force, or steals, we would shoot him immediately. We prevent them from going outside (the base) without permission. We are the most honest party in town,'' he responds.

While Cavaliers guard his apartment and the building's entrance, Khatib admits the delicacy of his forces' position in Beirut. ''When we appear suddenly in Beirut in red clothes, many parties and groups ask about us. Some are afraid. We are very strong, our political strength, our power.''

Indeed, the ADP has evolved into one of the larger independent parties since it was formed last April. Most other major leftist Lebanese groups collaborate loosely under the umbrella of the ''national movement.''

For once not smiling, Khatib is adamant that: ''We are not terrorists. We were built for defense against the Phalange (Christian militia) and Israel, to keep Lebanon independent and Arabian.''

Not all quarters are convinced yet that the Cavaliers' ultimate aim is limited to a defensive position. Potential opponents charge that the name alone offers sufficient suggestion that these ''knights'' are out to protect the Levantine realm for a remote master, namely, the Syrians.

And what other militias fear most is that the Cavaliers want eventually to overtake and absorb the feuding fiefdoms that divide Lebanon. So far there is no concrete evidence to prove that contention. In fact, the Panthers seem to be quite deliberately avoiding the free-for-alls among fractious rivals in Beirut.

What they are doing elsewhere is unclear. Khatib says there are some 2,000 pink uniforms coloring the countryside, while a massive recent recruitment campaign has made it possible for him to mobilize several thousand additional troops on short notice.

The Panthers are also positioned on Beirut's ''green line,'' in the southern suburbs, in the Bekaa Valley, Tripoli, and the south, Khatib claims, and Western envoys confirm.

Visibly tough if somewhat less impressive during drills, the Panthers' war materiel is already competitive with the other, more-established militias: mainly Soviet-made mortars, rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, and the ominous thin-barreled antiaircraft guns.

The projections and fears of the other Muslim-dominated militias may be based mostly on Khatib's criticism of his counterparts' third unsuccessful effort in two years to end rival hostilities in west Beirut.

''This is not enough to preserve security here,'' Khatib says. ''The thing that will preserve security is to unite all forces under one leadership, one military command. . . . We request a union of all military powers to regulate relations between men who hold arms.''

The Lebanese government and the Army would like nothing better than just that kind of unity - though specifically under their command. Yet as long as disorder is the only form of order in Lebanon, groups like the Pink Panthers contend they have a role to play.

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