Many Argentines see Pope as justifying their position

The echoes of South Atlantic war all but drowned out Pope John Paul II's eloquent and ringing appeals for peace between Argentina and Britain this weekend.

With British forces on the Falkland Islands launching their long-expected offensive to retake Port Stanley, Argentina was gearing for unhappy news from the front.

Official communiques admitted Argentine losses of men, materiel, and territory. More such losses were expected as the fighting intensified around Port Stanley.

Britain, meanwhile, was being accused of everything from human-rights violations of the utmost magnitude to having betrayed the cause of liberty, law, and justice.

Britain's attack Friday night and Saturday on Argentine defenses along the ever-smaller perimeter around Port Stanley, while the Pope was in Buenos Aires calling for peace, was seen here as a ''cynical betrayal of everything decent in this world.''

That the papacy looks on Argentina's seizure of the Falklands with considerable disdain - and holds Argentina every bit as culpable, if not more so than Great Britain - is lost on Argentine ears. What Argentina wants to hear, Argentina hears - and little else.

Pope John Paul himself seemed to distance himself from the government headed by Army Lt. Gen. Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri. He went over the heads of government in what a Vatican source said was a distinct appeal to the Argentine populace to end the fighting.

His spiritual message, however, seemed less impressive to the Argentine nation than his actual presence.

''He came,'' crowed a radio commentator Sunday, ''to show that he supports us in our just war against the English infidel.''

This is an extreme view. But there can be no mistaking the Argentine feeling that the Pope's presence here helped the Argentine cause in the Falklands war.

And the military government is determined to clothe its position in the most moral tones. Gen. Alfredo Oscar Saint Jean, the interior minister, put it starkly last week:

''Argentines . . . should see themselves as the leaders of the West, now that we represent the great principles - liberty, law, and justice - betrayed by the United States and Great Britain.''

This view was clearly enhanced by the Pope's visit. When the Pontiff called for a ''just, honorable, and lasting peace,'' many here saw this as support for their cause.

It was not overlooked also that the Pope's visit came on the eve of World Soccer Cup matches in Spain in which Argentina is defending its world title. The Pope's visit was perceived as a good an omen for Argentine fortunes in soccer as well as for Argentine success in war. Those soccer games are in some ways as important to the Argentine nation as the Falkland war itself.

Soccer is the national sport. And Sunday, with the Argentine team playing a strong Belgian team, the nation seemed glued to television watching their boys fight for national honor in Spain while other Argentine boys fought for honor in the Falklands.

''Don't forget,'' said another Argentine commentator Sunday, ''we owe the English a lot. They brought us soccer. . . . But we gave soccer a special touch. We perfected the game the English brought us.''

That backhanded compliment tells something about a country that still admires things English, even as it battles British soldiers.

Meanwhile, Argentine war communiques have taken on a new tone. The military is using what one paper termed ''a psychological war against the English.'' Part of this is the charge that Britain has violated islanders' human rights. Communiques Sunday listed some Falklanders as killed and wounded in a British air raid. Britain's surprise night attack on Stanley was labeled as ''seditious.''

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