Beirut — In a desperate last-minute bid to salvage the reconciliation process, the Lebanese government was forced to postpone the opening of the ''national dialogue'' Thursday, after intense political and military pressure from the opposition.
Three leaders of the anti-government National Salvation Front refused to attend because the talks were to be held at Beirut's airport. They said the airport was unsafe - even though their forces are at least partially responsible for recent bombardment of the area.
More importantly, however, the dispute reflects the apparent lack of will among the complex network of factions to finally try to find a means to end more than eight years of bloodshed and chaos in Lebanon.
Almost four weeks have now passed since a cease-fire was arranged to end the three-week-old ''war of the mountains'' and to open the way for political talks. Both Lebanese and foreign diplomats feel the time lapse and the controversy over a simple issue like the venue do not bode well for full-scale negotiations.
However, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt announced Wednesday that ''our rejection of the airport as a venue does not mean we reject the dialogue.'' Intense negotiations were underway Thursday by United States and Saudi Arabian mediators to try and find a compromise so that talks could begin as soon as possible.
There has been a growing feeling that the conference will have to take place at a foreign site, such as Saudi Arabia or Switzerland. Lebanon is now so divided into fiefdoms dominated by political factions, or large zones occupied by foreign armies, that the airport had been the only site considered neutral.
The government of President Amin Gemayel had tried to hold out for a local site as a means of gaining acknowledgement of its sovereignty. Its failure so far reflects the weakness of the Christian-dominated regime against the increasingly angry Muslim communities - even when it has full US backing.
Some envoys also blame the breakdown in part on the void in US diplomatic presence in Beirut. Former American troubleshooter Robert McFarlane left the region 10 days ago, and has subsequantly been appointed national security adviser to President Reagan. US Ambassador Robert Dillon vacated his post the same day, and his replacement has not yet arrived.
And Saudi Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, who was responsible for negotiating most of the cease-fire arrangements, has taken up his post as ambassador to Washington. That has left the Gemayel administration without any of the key advisors who helped orchestrate the peace process so far. Only lower-level aides without clout or experience are now available.
The government attempted to hold out, announcing the conference would go ahead anyway. But in the end, late Wednesday night, it had to give way, since no summit to decide on a new formula for power-sharing among Christians and Muslims would have any validity without the Muslim opposition.
Military pressure had also reached a new peak, with cease-fire violations on three fronts leading some sources from the multinational force to say the truce had broken down completely. The private Christian Voice of Lebanon radio station reported that the final decision to postpone the reconciliation talks was taken to avoid a complete explosion of violence.
Fighting, the basic form of protest in Lebanon these days, erupted among all major military factions: Christian Phalange and Druze gunmen exchanged rocket, mortar, and arillery fire in the Shouf mountains overlooking the capital.
The cacophony of shells and machine guns echoed through the densely-populated streets of Beirut's southern suburbs, as Shiites from the Amal militia took on the Lebanese Army.
One US marine was injured when a car bomb went off as a convoy of American troops drove past the Kuwaiti Embassy. Initial multinational force investigations indicate it was triggered by remote control, and was apparently aimed at the US contingent.
The sequence of events led one observer to label it ''the rat-a-tat-tat of reconciliation.''
Although the clashes diminished within hours of the announced postponement, there are grave doubts among the multinational peacekeeping forces that the charade of a cease-fire can be maintained much longer.
There is little faith left in the ability of the four-man security committee - from the Lebanese Army and the Druze, Christian, and Shiite militias - to sort out the warring factions.
Fears of further deterioriation have led to new reports in Beirut about a more active role for the US Marines if US troops come under attack again. The more active role would still be only for defensive purposes. The options would include greater involvement by the US naval support ships off Beirut's Mediterranean coast, or freedom to go after snipers based just outside the Marines' perimeter.
Colonel Tim Geraghty, the Marines commander, claimed this week that the mandate of his troops had not been changed because of the recent escalation in attacks against the 1,600-man contingent. But warrant officer Charles Rowe noted the change in mood of the multinational force. He said that after the killing of two more marines last weekend, ''now this is very much our conflict. We're no longer observers.''