Lebanon's Karami faces toughest task

''In view of military developments, we feel it is too late for the political solutions we have always advocated.'' Rashid Karami may regret those words, which were spoken in the heat of February's breakdown in Beirut. This man, who has led more Lebanese governments than any other politician, was assigned Thursday the task of saving Lebanon.

As prime minister of nine previous governments ranging over a 21-year period, Mr. Karami is not new to salvage operations, nor to leading rebellions and conspiracies against presidents who have appointed him.

He has seen the Lebanese conflict from both sides, as a leader of the 1958 Muslim uprising against the Christian-dominated government and as premier during the hottest period of the 1975-76 civil war. But the task ahead is clearly the most difficult he has ever taken on.

''It's going to be a commando mission,'' the prime minister-designate said about the mandate of the Cabinet he must now form. ''I do not believe there is a responsibility equal to that which we now face.''

In an appeal to Lebanon's factions, he said: ''Enough subversion, enough destruction, enough killing. It is high time for us to put a final end to conflicts that lead nowhere. We should all be recruited to serve Lebanon.''

In terms of the projected Cabinet, it might appear that just about everyone is being recruited. There are expected to be 26 members - compared with 10 now - and include all of the ''political magnates'' from the Christian, Muslim, and Druze communities.

The proposed Cabinet is seen as a means of forcing cooperation from all sides by giving each a vested interest. But at the same time, the combination is potentially explosive because of personal and political vendettas many of the men have for one another, Karami included.

Karami's appointment was designed to appease leftists, Muslims, and Syria, which is sponsoring the latest peace effort. A Sunni Muslim, as premiers must be under the 1943 power-sharing formula, Karami also was one of the three leaders of the opposition ''National Salvation Front'' formed last summer to campaign for reforms and against Lebanon's US-designed treaty with Israel.

His long ties with Damascus and the Palestine Liberation Organization are the primary reasons diplomats fear the anxious Christians will be reluctant to go along with an eventual reform package. Suspicions may be high about his long-term motives.

During his 33 years in parliament, Karami has also issued warnings, ominous in Christian eyes, about minority Christian attempts to hold on to power at the expense of the majority Muslims. When the front was formed, he charged that its goal was to block maneuvers by Christian parties to impose a one-party system on Lebanon.

''One of the principles for which we stand is to thwart their plans and maintain the independent decisions, democracy, and freedoms of this country,'' he said.

Yet Karami does have a record as a peacemaker, although it is somewhat spotted. After the 1958 rebellion, he formed the ''government of public safety.'' In 1975 it was the ''government of national salvation.'' This new government has already been labeled the ''government of national unity.''

Since leaving government in 1976, he has been busy in his home base of Tripoli negotiating cease-fires among the various local and foreign factions, including the PLO rebellion that ended with chairman Yasser Arafat's departure from northern Lebanon in December.

Karami is the undisputed leader in the north. Like many Lebanese leaders, he inherited some of his political prominence. He comes from a wealthy family of political and religious leaders. His father, Abdel Hamid Karami, was the Sunni religious leader of Tripoli and served briefly as premier in 1945. Rashid became Lebanon's youngest-ever prime minister in 1955. His rapid rise was due in part to his eloquent powers of speech.

Rashid was educated as a lawyer in Cairo, which played a major role in shaping his political stance. He was deeply influenced by the pan-Arab nationalism of then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

On his return to Beirut, Karami was a key backer of the movement in the early 1950s demanding greater rights for the Muslims, a campaign that 20 years later erupted into civil war, ironically when he was in power.

Karami left office in early 1976, deeply frustrated. He opposed using the Army to intervene against the militias for fear it would fall apart on sectarian lines, which eventually happened. Eight years later, he faces the same issues - and a nation far more divided. He appears to want to start by sweeping the slate clean. Lebanese sources said one of his conditions for accepting the premiership was the abolition of 161 decrees that have given the government special powers over the past 18 months.

He also reportedly won initial agreement for a sweeping reform package that will cut the role of the presidency by shifting powers to a new ''council of ministers'' more equally divided among the nation's 17 recognized sects.

Under pressure, officials of most of the major factions have indicated a willingness to try to pull together for a trial period in the Karami Cabinet. These include Shiite leader Nabih Berri and Druze chief Walid Jumblatt.

But the popular political psychology of the moment in all quarters is that the current peace will likely not last.

As with every past reconciliation effort, this one is expected to break down when the reform package is being finalized and the factions realize how much they stand to gain or, more important, lose. Sources from the four largest factions agree on one thing: If positions of the past solidify again, conflict would become inevitable and Karami's February prophesy would become reality.

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