Habib races against time to head off new Mideast war

Special United States envoy Phillip C. Habib continues to find at least a modicum of receptivity in the Middle East capitals he is shuttling among -- enough to land the State Department jet, confer, and carry with him something to talk about at his next stop.

Moving from Beirut to Damascus to Jerusalem to Riyadh and back in a circuit that is on its third repetition, Mr. Habib is attempting to formulate a plan to defuse the 18-day-old "missile crisis" between Syria and Israel.

In Beirut there is an actual hot war, with artillery and small arms fire. In Damascus, there is an unflinching resolve to keep troops and anti-aircraft missiles in Lebanon. In Riyadh, a desire for preventing the crisis from boiling over into a fifth Arab-Israeli war. And in Israel. a new attitude -one emphaslzing diplomacy over threat.

But at the same time, military activity in and around Lebanon is increasing rapidly, giving the veteran US diplomat a "gunpowder and steel" warning that an end to his missiom probably means a military clash between Israel and Syria -- with simultaneous hostilities between Israeli-backed Phalangist forces and Syrian-backed Lebanese leftists of the national movement.

These developments seemed to signal a worsening of the Lebanese crisis:

Extremely heavy artillery shelling went on May 16 and 17 between East and West Beirut, reaching into parts of the latter that previously had been untouched. This was the first serious flare-up in six days. There has also been fighting around the encircled central Lebanese town of Zahle.

Some non-essential American Embassy personnel in Beirut are being moved quietly out of the country. US monitoring posts in the Middle East have gone on a 24-hour schedule.

US and Soviet naval activity in the eastern Mediterranean has increased noticeably. The Soviet anti-submarine helicopter carrier Moskva is in the area, as is the US carrier Independence. The ships are there for a show of strength as well as the possibility that they might be needed for an emergency evacuation of Beirut.

Although the situation on the ground in Beirut is tense, hopeful signs are emerging from Israel -- which many consider the key to whether an actual military raid on Lebanon takes place. The government of Menachem Begin May 17 approved an indefinite extension of time to allow Mr. Habib to negotiate.

Mr. Begin has been under growing pressure for his Lebanon policy (over both the "missile crisis" and the amount of support Israel should give the Lebanese Phalangists). Over the weekend, the Israeli "Peace Now" movement held a large antiwar rally in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has continued to criticize Mr. Begin on the issue.

But the Israeli military is still taking precautionary moves along its northern border, and Prime Minister Begin still is seeking the unconditional withdrawal of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles from Lebanon.

The Habib mission is expected to continue at least until midweek. Mr. Habib met with Saudi Crown Prince Fahd May 16 and was expected to return to Damascus late May 17 or May 18, his third time there in 10 days. His next stop is Jerusalem. At this point there is no sign of a change in attitude by either Syria's Hafez Assad or Mr. Begin. But talk persists of a compromise plan Mr. Habib is working on.

Regional ramifications of the crisis are still mild. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat has called for the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers from Lebanon, to be replaced by an international peacekeeping force, and has said Israel should cease its frequent air and land incursions into Leban on.

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