Islamic consensus shows signs of strain

Slowly if not yet surely, the Arab world is splitting in two - with a relatively moderate majority lining up against what might best be called a Syrian-Shiite Muslim entente.

This seems the major message of last week's Islamic summit in Morocco - which wound up with an invitation for Egypt to return to the group from its forced exile after the Egyptian-Israeli peace almost five years ago.

A final statement omitted mention of conditions for Egypt's reentry - a Syrian demand at the conference - though it is not yet clear whether such terms might be relayed privately to the government of Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt, though eager to rejoin the Islamic and Arab communities, says it will reject any conditional invitation from the summit.

Still, if the invitation to Egypt indeed proves unconditional - or if the conditions are purposefully vague - the summit will have shelved a traditional insistence on consensus motions in favor of a majority stand against a Syrian-led minority.

Such a change in approach is precisely what Jordan's King Hussein has been seeking within the Arab League amid increasing enmity between Arab moderates and more hard-line states like Syria and Libya. The King would like an Arab summit, scheduled for March, to shelve past insistence of unanimous decisions for mere majority vote.

Even as the Islamic summit delegates headed home - Iran boycotted the meeting - reports from Washington afforded a reminder of the growing role of Shiite militancy in the region.

The reports quoted US intelligence sources as saying Shiite groups had obtained light aircraft from Iran and might soon be able to launch kamikaze-style attacks on US forces in or offshore from Lebanon.

An emerging Arab mainstream of parties like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq , and Yasser Arafat's faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization professes implicitly or explicitly a wish for negotiated Arab-Israeli peace - albeit not yet on terms the Americans, much less the Israelis, seem likely to back.

The opposing camp - most importantly, Syria, but also Libya and non-Arab Iran - variously sees such a negotiated tack as pointless, or as treachery against the ''Palestinian cause.''

Still, as so often in the Mideast, the piecing together of a genuinely united or effective ''moderate'' front may prove easier on paper than in practice - particularly on the issue of Arab-Israeli peace.

There are various potential roadblocks ahead.

For one thing, all of the relative moderates are nagged by the suspicion that the present Israeli government can count on at least tacit United States backing in its rejection of even ''moderate'' Arab peace terms: notably, the demand for some kind of Palestinian ''self-determination'' on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Moreover, what unity so far exists among the relative moderates seems more the product of shared enmities than of shared goals.

The relative moderates are, in particular, uneasy over current Syrian policy - and over the Syrians' alleged acquiescence to Shiite extremist violence in the region.

Egypt's announced intention to join Jordan and Mr. Arafat in strategy talks this spring provides one example of the potential hitches.

All three parties are suspicious of the Syrians. For Egypt, Damascus is the most important remaining opponent of the 1979 treaty with Israel and also a potential conduit for Iranian and Soviet influence in the region.

Jordan is similarly concerned. Moreover, Jordan shares a recently tense frontier with Syria and privately blames a series of Amman bomb explosions on a Palestinian group based in Syria.

Mr. Arafat's enmity toward Syria stems for Syrian backing for his rivals in a civil war within the PLO.

Yet sources from Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO suggest all are reluctant to go out on a limb for negotiated Mideast peace without at least a credible assurance from Washington that the Israelis will be pressured to meet such a move halfway.

Arafat may prove especially reluctant. A year ago, he balked at sealing a joint strategy with Jordan's King Hussein out of fears that he would split his PLO. Although the split has since occurred anyway, Arafat has hinted at reluctance to brook a further fracture among forces still loyal to him.

A meeting earlier this month of Arafat's own Fatah guerrilla leadership issued distinctly mixed signals. A formal statement implied at one point the possibility of an agreement with King Hussein on a platform for Palestinian ''self-determination,'' but elsewhere repeated past demands for a full-fledged Palestinian state.

Other relative Arab moderates - notably, the Saudis - seem far more preoccupied for the time being with the issue of Shiite militancy than with the details of any early Arab-Israeli peace move.

In the end, more than a few Mideast analysts feel, this concern might help prod not only the Saudis, but also states like Jordan and Egypt to stop short of formalizing their growing split with Syria.

One further consideration is a residual loyalty to the near-sacred Nasser-era precept of unity among all Arabs. But on a more practical level, relative moderates in the region could prove fearful of any step that risks further alienating the Syrians and driving them closer to the Shiite theocracy in Iran.

Syria's Arab rivals are convinced Damascus has at least acquiesced in some of the recent Shiite attacks in neighboring Lebanon. But some Arab analysts say Syria also shares a general concern among Arab regimes over the long-range implications of such attacks - and thus should be wooed rather than formally excluded by the Arab mainstream.

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