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American 'doves' in Beirut worry about Washington policies

By Robin WrightSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 16, 1983


An ominous split has developed during the past two months between Washington policymakers and United States personnel - military and diplomatic - in Beirut over strategy in Lebanon.

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In effect, ''hawk'' and ''dove'' camps have evolved from the differing interpretations of facts on the ground here, according to US and multinational force (MNF) sources.

There is concern here that hawks in the Reagan administration - led by national-security adviser Robert McFarlane - will get the United States more deeply and dangerously trapped in Lebanon, ignoring the advice of US Marine and Army personnel and the US Embassy that the recent escalation of verbal threats and displays of military strength will only lead to a direct confrontation with Soviet-backed Syria rather than fend off future attacks.

The second danger is that the future of Middle East peace efforts will be endangered by saber-rattling potentates in Washington unable to keep their diplomatic cool during the most fragile stage of negotiations on Lebanon, upon which all else hinges, according to officials from all four MNF countries.

There is deep concern now in Beirut about conflicting versions of recent events, and how they are being used to exploit opposing strategies that could seriously influence the depth and length of the US presence in Lebanon, and the vulnerability of US personnel.

The rift has been particularly visible on four fronts:

1.The Damascus announcement that Syria's air defense system had fired on four US F-14 fighter-bombers last week, chasing them from Syrian-controlled eastern Lebanon back to their aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranen.

At the time, speculation centered on whether the American war planes were scared away by Soviet-made MIG fighters or the new SAM-5 ground-to-air missiles, so controversial when they were installed in January and still manned by Soviet technicians.

Beirut papers bannered it as the first direct confrontation between the US and its Mideast Nemesis - Moscow-supported Syria. And on Sunday, Mr. McFarlane said that US intervention in Grenada demonstrated US determination to react when threatened, referring specifically to the possibility of US planes in Lebanon being fired atagain.

But US sources in Beirut claim the incident was overblown by Washington. They claimed the F-14s were fired at only by antiaircraft missiles on the ground, and that it was not the first time. A Western military source said US planes were shot at ''quite regularly. It's never been considered a very big deal. They're not very good shots.''

The incident coincided with a dramatic increase in overflights by US warplanes, from two or three each day to dozens, reportedly ordered by Washington in the aftermath of the bombing that killed 239 marines.

Military sources acknowledged that Damascus, fearful after repeated US pledges of retaliation, would view the escalation as either clear-cut provocation, or preparation for some kind of attack. Several officials interpreted the Syrian announcement as a means of showing that it would not be intimidated by ''US acts of aggression.''

Key US officials in Beirut were dismayed when Washington did little to clarify the incident and defuse the heightened tension. ''Maybe that's exactly what they want,'' one noted.

2.Serious discussions in Washington about a preemptive strike to knock out a battery of Soviet-made multiple rocket launchers recently positioned near the Marine base and under control of pro-Iranian Lebanese factions.

One US television network recently reported that Pentagon sources said the strike could be carried out by ground units, listing either French commandos already in Beirut or by an American counterterrorist force, before the new weaponry can be used against the US marines.

Indeed, new BM-21s have been sighted in Borj el Barajneh and Hay al Salloum, strongholds of Shiite gunmen that border the Marine base.