Saudis try where US failed in Lebanon

Under a brilliantly sunny sky, Lebanon came back to life Sunday, both politically and physically. The return of Rafik Hariri, the Saudi-appointed mediator, to Beirut over the weekend sparked a glimmer of hope that at least an attempt was being made to use political channels to prevent the government from resorting to military force.

Mr. Hariri shuttled between the Christian eastern and Muslim western halves of the capital to mediate between President Amin Gemayel and his Muslim and Druze opponents. He was reviving a Saudi peace effort abruptly suspended two weeks ago. Lebanese on both sides of the city's dividing ''green line'' hope that the Saudis might succeed where the Americans, so far, have made no headway.

But unlike previous Lebanese conflicts over the past nine years, which have involved local militias fighting each other or foreigners invading, the latest round of fighting has been a widespread, grass-roots uprising by one religious group against another in an attempt to shift the balance of power in Lebanon.

This is a hard fact that neither President Gemayel nor the American diplomatic team headed by Donald Rumsfeld has been willing to admit publicly, say other foreign envoys.

Now the alternatives are stark: Either there will be massive changes in the political system, or Lebanon will be finished as a united nation.

The few diplomats left in Beirut after the weekend evacuation generally agree that there can be no further delays by the Maronite Christians in giving up their domination of almost every arm of the state, from high school principals to Parliament. And, these analysts add, the Christians, who have traditionally looked to the West as a model, will have to concede openly for the first time that Lebanon's identity is with the eastern Arab world. In particular, the Christians will have to give up the United States-negotiated May 17 peace agreement with Israel.

(Israel made clear Sunday it would keep its troops in south Lebanon if the Beirut government scrapped the troop withdrawal accord, Reuters reports.)

The prospect of an end to a united Lebanon was felt during the evacuation of hundreds of foreigners, civilians, and diplomats from dozens of embassies. Many of them had stuck it out during the hardships and horrifics of the Israeli invasion in 1982, and the 1975-76 civil war.

Margaret Cummings, the widow of a professor from Beirut's American University , abandoned Lebanon after 14 years with the simple declaration: ''Nothing has ever been like this.''

But a number of Americans actually left because of fears that US policy had so backfired that the safety of US civilians had been put in jeopardy. Kay Wade, a language instructor, was seen arguing with Marine guards as she prepared to leave by military helicopter from the US compound on the Mediterranean coast.

''I don't want the Americans to protect me by shelling from the (USS) New Jersey and killing Lebanese,'' she said. ''Some people are leaving because the New Jersey fired.''

Her remark reflected the sentiment among Americans here that no amount of force will make what they see as a misguided policy succeed.

Three major US news organizations also ordered their staffs to leave, fearing retaliation - or the kind of fate that met Frank Regier, an engineering professor at American University who was kidnapped Friday, according to campus officials.

The sense of panic eased somewhat Sunday. For the first time, the green line opened at a single crossing under supervision of French forces, although there were sniper attacks on vehicles daring to cross.

Mr. Hariri also crossed, driving himself in a black Mercedes and stopping long enough to predict a possible breakthrough on the comparatively minor issue of security arrangements for west Beirut. Amal, the Shiite Muslim militia, wants the Lebanese Army's Sixth Brigade to take over. This is the unit that used to patrol the west. A majority of its soldiers defected last week.

In a typically bizarre Lebanese situation, the government may end up funding the revolution against it. Amal has no funds to pay the wages of Army defectors, so, under the proposed compromise, the government will have to provide funds.

However, any early breakthrough is still a long way from meeting the basic demands put forth Saturday by a joint committee of Sunni and Shiite leaders. The demands include rescinding 161 decrees issued over the past 17 months under the Emergency Powers Act. They also include abrogation of the May 17 agreement and an end to any military action against west Beirut.

Those terms are only the preliminaries for opening the way to further dialogue on the major issues of a new government and a new formula for power-sharing among Lebanon's 17 recognized sects.

Mr. Hariri, who is Lebanese born but bases his large business operation in Saudi Arabia, also played a hand in easing the tension, dispatching trucks and personnel from his Lebanese construction company into west Beirut to clean up the enormous accumulation of garbage.

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