French troops eclipsed US Marines in Lebanon

The Lebanese government wants the American Marines to stay a bit longer. But the Lebanese people aren't bothered by their planned Friday departure, since they think the French troops were the real peacekeepers.

The government is worried the Lebanese Army can't manage single-handedly to keep the capital on the path of peace and quiet.

The American government has applauded the 800 leathernecks repeatedly throughout their 16-day stay in the war-ravaged capital.

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Charles Percy visited the men, heaping praise and compliments on them.

Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel visited Beirut port to thank the marines who have stood guard there. ''They, along with the French and the Italians, have helped us to start evacuating the foreigners from Lebanon,'' he said.

But the Lebanese people have barely noticed the marines.

The leathernecks have remained in the port area, a spooky, decimated neighborhood testifying to the horror of the 1975-76 civil war. The port is the one crossing between east and west Beirut that has not reopened since the PLO evacuation.

They have been literally ''confined'' to the section because of American anxiety over their safety.

The only way Beirut residents knew they were here was the US Sixth Fleet was clearly bobbing up and down just offshore.

The 600 Italians haven't budged from their positions at the Galerie Semaan crossing, but it is open to traffic. The Italians have whiled away some of their hours playing with children and running a mobile clinic for those wounded during the war.

Only the 800 French paratroopers and foreign legionnaires have actively participated in bringing peace to the city. The French are at the museum and Sodeco crossings. They have defused land mines in the downtown area not only from this latest war but from the Lebanese civil war as well. This downtown area was a no man's land until recently.

They, too, have provided roving medical services.

At times they have ''dragged the Lebanese Army kicking and screaming,'' according to eyewitnesses, forcing it to secure neighborhoods.

Newspapers Thursday blazoned photographs of the French in the Place De Partyrs, once the bustling heart of the capital. Now it is a deserted, devastated section, since it became the front line between the Syrians and Palestinians on one side and the Christians on the other.

Western diplomats close to American envoy Philip Habib's peace plan said it was ''magical'' in that it said everything to everyone, but didn't commit any party to anything specific.

One senior Western dilomat pointed out that the three nations with troops in Beirut wanted to make the Lebanese Army stand on its own as soon as possible.

There should be no excuses this time like there were with the Syrian peacekeepers, he added.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan and Mr. Gemayel had requested that the soldiers stay at least the full 30 days of the mandate.

American diplomats in the Middle East admit the US is now paranoid about hostage taking - post Iran. That fear has obviously kept the marines sealed off from the city. They are literally barricaded behind sandbags and the Lebanese Army at their most forward position at the west entrance to Beirut port.

But the general sentiment among the Lebanese was that the superpower Americans should be gutsier.

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