Lebanon's war of the mountains has escalated dramatically with serious new political and military implications. Two United States marines were killed and two injured after the 1,200-man contingent came under heavy rocket and artillery barrages Tuesday, bringing the US death toll to four in the recent clashes.
New reports of massacres of civilians in Shouf mountain villages have further polarized the rival Christian and Muslim populations. More than 200 have been killed and 560 injured - the majority civilians - in the fighting that broke out shortly after the partial Israeli withdrawal on Sunday.
Lebanese Minister of Finance Abdel Hamiyeh, the only Druze on the Cabinet, resigned Monday following the massacre of an estimated 40 Druze civilians, allegedly by Christian Phalange militias, in Kafr Matta.
Druzes of the Progressive Socialist Party have taken control of the strategic town of Bhamdun on the Beirut-Damascus highway. It was a major victory in their three-pronged offensive in the area evacuated by the Israelis.
US envoy Robert McFarlane spent less than 24 hours in Beirut consulting with the government of Amin Gamayel before heading to Damascus for meetings with President Hafez Assad in an apparent effort to obtain for help in pressuring the Druzes to accept a cease-fire that would allow political negotiations.
The major players on the side of the government appear to have seriously underestimated the determination and strength of the Druzes in their military and political campaign to win concessions from the Christian-led government on behalf of all Muslims. Just one week ago, a key foreign military adviser to the Lebanese Army predicted the Druzes would not put up much of a fight if war broke out.
But the swift progress by the Syrian-backed Druzes indicates they intend to try to gain as much leverage as possible by conquests on the ground to force the hand of President Gemayel to meet Druze demands later at the negotiating table.
Interviewed in Damascus, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said the mountain war ''will decide the destiny of Lebanon.'' He also warned that the involvement in Lebanon of the US Marines could ''turn into another Vietnam war'' for the US military, and for other contingents from France, Italy, and Britain in the multinational peacekeeping force.
The conflict in the hills overlooking Beirut now has an increasing number of outside players, which has further complicated the picture.
Officials at the Baabda presidential palace complained of ''blatant foreign intervention in Lebanese affairs,'' meaning neighboring Syria. And the Phalangist ''Voice of Lebanon'' has claimed that only 15 percent of the gunmen on the Druze side are actually Druzes, the remainder being Syrians and Palestinians.
But Mr. Jumblatt denied the charges Tuesday, saying that ''all that is said about the participation of the Syrians and Palestinian forces in the fighting is untrue and an excuse for the defeats suffered by the (Lebanese) Army and the Phalangist forces.''
Western military analysts have also expressed doubt about a major Syrian role so far - beyond supplies and technical assistance - such as helping determine coordinates to target Christian or Lebanese Army artillery positions. They also point out that the Syrians are well aware of Israeli threats to take action if the Syrians attempt to enter the area they evacuated.
There is no question, however, that Syria hopes the Druze offensive will lead to a new political order in Lebanon, one more pro-Syrian and less influenced by pro-Israeli Phalangists.
Syria is offering active political support. On Monday it called for an Arab boycott of Lebanon, filing an official petition with the 21-nation Arab League to oust the Lebanese.
In turn, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have been drawn in on behalf of the Gemayel administration, with envoys scrambling in several countries to make contact about possible peace terms. According to a Beirut newspaper, Saudi King Fahd held lengthy telephone conversations with both the Syrian and Lebanese leadership on Monday, while other Saudi princes were spread out in key Middle East capitals.
The danger is that the polarization between camps in Lebanon will spread over into the Arab world, creating a major split.
All efforts appear to center on getting the Christians and Druzes to accept ''red lines'' in a cease-fire. Such lines would serve to separate the warring factions - whose feud dates back more than a century - while all sides are brought together to work out a new political formula to even the distribution of power between the majority Muslims and minority Christians.
But the atmosphere at the moment is not conducive to negotiations, as reflected in the resignation of a Cabinet minister. Although not formally accepted by Mr. Gemayel yet, Mr. Hamiyeh's absence would be a major loss since he was 1 of 3 members of the Cabinet reconciliation committee that has toured the country in recent weeks to meet with diverse religious and political leaders about terms for establishing long-term peace.