Buenos Aires — The Argentine military is embroiled in a bitter new battle: a power struggle to decide who will lead this badly battered nation of 28 million people.
For the past four days, Army generals, Navy admirals, and Air Force brigadiers have been unable to agree on a new president. They cannot even make up their minds on whether he should be another military man or a civilian.
About all they concur on is that they themselves should be the ones to make the choice. And the deliberations reportedly have been acrimonious, angry, and divisive.
Almost overlooked in the struggle was the weekend return to this country of more than 6,000 Argentine prisoners of war, captured by the British in the Falklands. They came home aboard the British luxury liner Canberra and the North Sea ferry Morland, which arrived at Puerto Madryn, 800 miles south of Buenos Aires. There was little fanfare.
Although the military took scant notice of the prisoners' arrival, it did issue a new accusation against the British, charging them with yet another ''aggression.'' This time it was British occupation of the South Sandwich Islands, a dependency of the Falkland Islands, some 1,200 miles from Argentina.
But the focus of the tension here was on efforts to form a new government.
The first step was the removal of Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, who served both as President and Army commander in chief for the past six months. He did not go quietly, but held on desperately until other Army generals ''told him the facts of life,'' as one of them expressed it.
That left Argentina with interim leadership under Lt. Gen. Cristino Nicolaides as Army commander and the present interior minister, Maj. Gen. Alfredo Oscar Saint Jean, as interim President.
As Army commander, General Nicolaides assumes the key role as the Army's representative in the ruling military junta. He thus has a major say in the naming of a new president but he is much buffeted. Many fellow officers, particularly among the colonels, do not like him. ''He is no better than Galtieri,'' one colonel said over the weekend. ''He may be worse.''
This sort of internecine struggle, which newspapers call here a ''crisis,'' is also vigorously evident among the three services -- Army, Navy, and Air Force.
If they ultimately fail to agree among themselves, it is entirely possible that General Saint Jean could become de facto president, remaining in the job for an extended period. This possibility seems ever more likely in the view of some well-placed officers.
The Navy is making a decided effort to get a civilian into the presidency -- and several names have surfaced. They include present Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez; Alejandro Orfila, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, and former Argentine ambassador to the United States; and Rafael Martinez Raymonda, former Argentine ambassador to Italy who has a reputation as an able administrator.
Yet the Army, the senior service, wants one of its own, perhaps even a retired officer, to hold the presidency. There is widespread agreement that the best candidate in this category would probably be retired Lt. Gen. Alcides Lopez Aufranc, an infantry officer and former commander of the Army in Cordoba Province who how heads the National Steel Company.
A longstanding power struggle within the Army between infantry officers and the engineers' corps works against his choice. Generals Galtieri and Nicolaides belong to the engineers; when General Galtieri seized power last December he sent many of the infantry officers packing.
''All this puts us back to square one,'' said a well-informed colonel. ''We simply have no agreement and no idea who will emerge.''
This all-consuming process, which could go on for days, has left Argentina without a government.
The return of the Argentine prisoners is the clearest case in point. Britain wanted to send them back as quickly as possible, but for several days last week the Argentine military was too busy with its internal squabbles to work out details.
It was not until last Thursday evening that the Foreign Ministry assured safe conduct for the Canberra and the Morland to bring the prisoners back.
Foreign Ministry sources say the United States played a role in working out these ''humanitarian arrangements.'' If that is true, it is a first major US contact with the Argentine government in several months. Many Argentines blame the US even more than Britain for the Falklands debacle. Britain remains the enemy -- the US, the traitorous former friend.