Alexander M. Haig Jr. appeared Monday to be moving closer to his goal of defusing the Falkland Islands crisis.
In four days of intense talks with Argentine officials, the US Secretary of State reportedly wrung some concessions out of Argentina. Most importantly, the Argentines are said to have backed away from their demand that a precondition for settlement of their dispute with Britain would have to include Argentine sovereignty over the islands.
The revised Haig plan, whose details were still not fully known at time of writing, calls for joint Argentine-British administration of the Falklands. Mr. Haig appeared to have gained conditional Argentine acceptance for this. But the whole plan, of course, would also have to be approved by Britain. And Mr. Haig, who set out for Washington late Monday afternoon, is expected to go on to London shortly thereafter for consultation with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Upon leaving Buenos Aires, Mr. Haig indicated that time was running out for a settlement of the Falklands dispute. But he made it clear he believes ''war in the South Atlantic would be the greatest of tragedies.''
Terms of the proposed plan include quick Argentine removal of its 10,000-man occupation force from the islands, and from the South Georgia and South Sandwich islands as well. Britain, in turn, would be required to halt its massive naval armada, which is nearing South Atlantic waters off Argentina, and return it to British ports.
The two nations, in jointly administering the islands, would set up a police force composed of policemen from both countries.
With flags from both Argentina and Britain flying over the islands, the United States would act as overseer of the agreement while the two nations got down to the business of working out an accord on the future of the disputed territory. The plan reportedly does not mention sovereignty -- previously an issue that Argentina insisted must be a part of the settlement.
If the Argentines do, in fact, accept this plan, the next question is whether the British can be won over to it. Like Argentina, Britain has insisted that its sovereignty over the islands is neither up for grabs nor for bartering away.
It is recognized here that hitches could develop, delaying or canceling Argentine acceptance of the plan. But there does seem to be an accord in the making.
Mr. Haig's repeated delaying of his departure from Argentina ''is due to something more than his fondness for good Argentine steak,'' a highly placed Argentine source said Monday.
That Mr. Haig had made headway in his talks with Argentine officials also was evident in remarks by Brig. Gen. Basilio Lami Dozo, the Air Force member of Argentina's three-man governing junta. ''We are close to something definitive,'' he told this reporter at noon Monday. ''Just wait a few hours.''
Although General Lami Dozo has not been directly involved in the talks between Mr. Haig and Army Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, who leads the junta and is Argentina's President, he was part of a high-level meeting of military officers at the Casa Rosada, Argentina's White House, that went into the wee hours of the morning Monday.
There is also little doubt that Argentina wants a way out of the Falklands debacle. The Argentine military does not want to go to war, although there are plenty of claims of the combat readiness of the Argentine Army, Navy, and Air Force. It is privately admitted that there is no certainty Argentina would win against a determined British armada, even one facing so tricky a supply situation as does the fleet headed this way.
Fresh assessments of the relative strength of the British and Argentine air forces, for example, do not give the same edge to Argentina that earlier assessments did. Indeed the British are now seen as stronger than previously thought.
Moreover, even if Argentina were to defeat the British, the cost to an extremely weak Argentine economy still could prove disastrous. Already, the military buildup in the wake of the Falklands occupation April 2 is causing strain in the economy.
Mr. Haig has been conscious of all this -- using it to convince the Argentines that the Falklands issue needs to be defused. Any settlement hammered out between Buenos Aires and London must not, he knows, humiliate Argentina or Britain.
''How to save face,'' mused a US official over the weekend, ''is Haig's big challenge. Neither Britian nor Argentina -- nor the US as mediator -- can be humiliated.''
Mr. Haig's reputation, moreover, is somewhat on the line. He has been strongly criticized for his role in the Falklands dispute and for reports that he edged Vice-President George Bush out of the Falkands mediation. There are some here who say Mr. Haig needs a success in the Falkands negotations as much as the British and the Argentines do to save face.
This issue aside, there is little question that Haig has worked hard in marathon sessions of 12 hours or more with Argentine officials since he returned here late last week.