Marines in Lebanon facing increased danger

Lebanon's newest television station is run out of a tiny building no bigger than a trailer home, on the outskirts of Beirut's international airport. For nine hours daily, viewers can watch ''Archie Bunker,'' ''Taxi,'' ''Monday Night Baseball,'' or the evening news - one week late - from US stations.

Less than a mile away, on the edge of the airport's runway, a cardboard sign declares: ''Sandbag, population 89.'' It also shows increasing sings of Americana: basketball hoops and US-manufactured coffeemakers.

The two facilities are both run by the 1,200 US marines of the multinational peacekeeping force in Lebanon. They reflect the two most significant aspects of the marines' mission as they mark the first anniversary of their arrival in Lebanon on Thursday: quasi-permanence and increasing dangers.

The TV station is one of many signs of how the marines have gotten ''stuck'' in what was supposed to be a temporary assignment. Last December they established a radio station that broadcasts 18 hours of US music, news, and sports daily. In April, acknowledging that the assignment was longer term, the TV operation began. It is a big commitment for a small unit.

The dangers of getting caught up in the quagmire of Lebanese politics are evident at Sandbag City, a platoon outpost in the eight square miles under marine supervision. The outpost got its nickname because of the four-foot high walls of sandbags surrounding the camp.

Three times in the past month, the marines have been on full alert due to shelling around the airport. A few rounds that landed close to their positions injured three marines and one Navy officer slightly.

The men at Sandbag City claim to have filled more than 10,000 sandbags since late May, just for their unit. Recently, most have been distributed to forward observation posts.

They have also reconstructured defense lines, digging new trenches so they can get ammunition to their 81-mm mortars through covered or concealed routes.

On Aug. 10 the marines fired back for the first time. But they fired only flares as a warning to Druze militiamen in the surrounding hills.

There have been many changes since the first Marine Amphibious Unit arrived on Aug. 25, 1982, to help supervise the evacuation of Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas from west Beirut. In those days, the marines did not even put ammunition magazines in their guns, and the mission went so well that Washington pulled them out halfway through a 30-day mandate.

But they were back 19 days later, after the massacre of 800 Palestinian civilians and the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel. There is still intense speculation among Middle East pundits about whether those incidents would have happened if the Marines, and their French and Italian counterparts, had stayed through the full term.

Now there is a new tension and danger for the Marines to face, as Lebanon prepares for a partial Israeli withdrawal from the Shouf mountains near the marines' positions. The Shouf has been the scene of vicious fighting between Druze and Christian militias.

The airport has been made a target three times since July 22 by Druze gunmen demanding that the Christian-dominated government give all Muslims increased representation. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt warned the Marines last week to stay away from Lebanese Army positions near the airport.

The Druzes have threatened to fight the Lebanese Army if it tries to move in to the Shouf to replace the Israelis, leading to fears of a new civil war. The Druze and other Muslim leftist groups want national reconciliation through political reforms before the government extends its authority ''by force.''

The indirect threat to the US contingent was reflected in a message from Marine Col. Tim Geraghty: ''This anniversary serves to remind us all that the solution to Lebanon's problems is not a simple one.

''The mission has not been easy, it is difficult to stand strong and silent when various factions attempt to goad you into acts that would discredit our purpose.''

There have been lengthy talks between the Lebanese and the four multinational force countries, now also including Britain, about expanding the 5,200-man peacekeeping force so it could accompany the Lebanese Army when it moves in to fill the vacuum left by the Israelis, probably within the next 10 days. But the request has been put on the back burner due to the volatility of the Shouf and the possibility the multinational troops might become symbolic targets.

The situation underlines the ambiguous role of the Marines, whose main job is to provide psychological and symbolic support for the Lebanese Army as it rebuilds after eight years of fragmentation and disarray. Although the Marines supervise the airport environs, they are not involved in police action. Any violation noticed is passed on to the Lebanese Army for action.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.