Peacekeeping forces face the harrowing and hilarious in Beirut

The tales of the multinational force (MNF) in Lebanon read like something out of Evelyn Waugh - the harrowing mixed with the hilarious. It is a combination that reflects the status of one of the most unusual peacekeeping forces in the world.

The mandate of the 5,100 troops from the United States, France, Italy, and Britain is fraught with dangers, since they are eyeball-to-eyeball with a dizzying network of internal and international rivals that would require a PhD in political science to understand fully.

''I've never seen artillery coming down on houses, on populated areas so indiscriminately. It's horrifying,'' commented Lt. Col. John Cochrane, commander of the British contingent.

''There's no comparison with Northern Ireland,'' added Captain Alex Roe, who completed two years there before being assigned to Beirut. ''I've seen far more banging and shooting here.''

But since its second deployment last September, the MFN has seen some slightly zany problems add color to its mission, as vignettes of their lifestyle reveal:

There is squadron leader Simon Stewart of the Queen's Dragoon Guards, who totes an ''English-American dictionary'' with him everywhere, as he often cannot make head nor tail of what the US Marines are telling him.

The Americans have their own language difficulties. In response to the tongue-twisting Arabic names, they have made up their own titles. The suburb of Hay el-Salloum may soon have to be officially renamed ''Hooterville,'' so common is usage of the marine substitute, even among Lebanese.

The biggest language limitation is the ban on communication with the Israeli forces. Yet the proximity has led to an unspoken intimacy.

From their rooftop positions, the British peer through telescopes at an Israeli checkpoint only 100 yards away, catching such scenes as an Israeli soldier getting his hair cut. Quite often the Israelis, noting they are being checked, will flash a thumbs-up signal or call across for European soccer scores. The Brits are a bit embarrassed they cannot officially answer.

The Italians, who provide the bulk of protection in the Palestinian camps, have gotten around the language problem a different way.

Gen. Franco Angioni stuffs the pockets of his fatigues with chocolates. As he rides regularly through the sites of the massacres of 800 Palestinians last fall , where fear is still rampant, children dash from alleys shouting ''Angioni, Angioni.'' For many of them, it has been an effective way of reaffirming the commitment to care for the refugees.

The success of the Italians' first major mission since World War II - providing a badly needed sense of security in the camps - has also made General Angioni the most famous Italian soldier in almost 40 years. But such is the sensitivity of the mission that occasionally the Italians overreact.

When one patrol recently heard the rat-a-tat-tat of a gun, they whizzed them into action. Troops fanned around the house, others hit the dirt, releasing the safeties on their rifles. It was a gun all right, the hammer gun of a rather startled resident trying to repair his home.

Yet the dangers are very real, reflected in the sporadic grenade and machine gun attacks on the MNF since January. As a result, none of the troops are allowed liberty in town. At a recent rugby match between the British and the French, the scrummers arrived in shorts, stripes - and flak jackets.

The fluctuating situation - war alerts one day, demobilizations the next - has led to a roller coaster of emotions between intense anxiety and boredom, especially as the MNF awaits a decision on the much-rumored expansion of its mission and numbers for deployment outside Beirut.

But an enterprising British unit found a way to accommodate even that. A mobile reconnaissance unit, hunting for land mines and illegal militiamen, recently uncovered instead a troupe of exotic nightclub dancers, whom they immediately dispatched back to British headquarters for an impromptu performance in the tank garage.

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