Who attacked US envoy in Lebanon? Too many groups to be sure

So politically fractured and wide open is this country -- and so throughly armed are its residents -- that any of two dozen groups might have been responsible for the unsuccessful Aug. 27 attack on US Ambassador John Gunther Dean.

The motive for the attack is not clear. No group at this writing had claimed responsibility. One observation might be ventured, however: The very sensitive, very often contradictory United States policy in the Middle East displeases great numbers of Middle Easterner by trying to please everyone.

A corollary: Many of the displeased are armed and desperate.

An example of US policy confusion occurred last week, and involved Mr. Dean. The ambassador issued a statement from Beirut condemning Israel's massive Aug. 19 commando assault on Palestinian positions in Southern Lebanon. The same day, however, the US State Department flatly refused to condemn the raid. Neither the State Department nor the Beirut embassy has reconciled their positions publicly.

Some critics in Beirut see this two-sided approach as no accident, but as a way of playing up to Israeli interests prior to the US presidential election, while attempting to mollify the Arab world in the face of an upsurge of Israeli military activity.

"After all," commented one Middle Eastern affairs specialist, "Lebanon is a sovereign nation. And Israel did send its forces into it. This sort of action is condemned by your government almost anywhere else in the world."

By coincidence, hours before the armed attack on Mr. Dean's party occured, he was underscoring his embassy's essentially pro-Arab stand on the Israeli incursion.

"American policy includes opposition to acts of violence which ignore or violate the internationally recognized border between Lebanon and Israel," the ambassador told reporters following a meeting with Lebanese Foreign Minister Fuad Butrus.

One can find other instances of US diplomatic dualism around the world -- China-Taiwan policy being a recent and noteworthy example. But in the wild, wild west atmosphere of Beirut, armed thugs are as likely to resort to violence over a wrong world as over a wrong move to the coat pocket.

Along west Beirut's Hamra Street, one sees men and boys strolling about with rifles and machine guns. At night, it is not uncommon to happen upon a flatbed truck on the corniche with a dozen young militiamen sitting in the back, weapons at their knees, braced for action.

Weapons trading flourishes.

"Yes, we very much prefer the Kalashnikovs [Soviet rifles]," one rightist official confided this week. "But they are so expensive because we have to buy them on the black market. Our situation is very difficult, we are surrounded, we must have these weapons."

Multiply those sentiments, if not those exact words, by the sundry factions inhabiting this land. Still, the group responsible for the attack on Ambassador Dean is difficult to image.

An Arab organization might feel angry at what it could regard as US diplomatic word games, but Mr. Dean's own position was not the one to feel angry about, many locals quickly admit.

"What he said was against the Israelis; it was not against Arabs," said one Lebanese businessman.

Nor does there yet seem much validity to the theories of local pundits (who deal in political speculation as busily as some Lebanese deal in rifles) that this might have been the work of an Israeli or Christian provocateur.

"Much too dangerous," one observer offers succinctly.

Two suspects in the Dean attack were reported to have been detained by Lebanese police. Thus the motive and instigators eventually may be learned.

Authorities still do not know who murdered former US Ambassador to Lebanon Francis Meloy, his economic counsel, Robert Waring, and their Lebanese driver in June 1976 in Muslim-controlled west Beirut.

This time the incident occurred in predominantly Christian east Beirut. Shortly after leaving his residence en route to an evening speaking engagement, the ambassador's three-car convoy came under machine-gun and rocket attack. However, the entourage escaped without injury and continued to its destination.

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