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Lebanon prepares new bid for control of restive south

Lebanon's precarious post-civil-war government intends to send its reconstituted Army once more to the trouble southern border region near Israel. However, no one - with the exception of the 6,000-man United Nations interim force - seems willing to help Lebanon in its symbolic step to show it is back on its feet with a viable military machine.

Even some officials with the UN force are privately skeptical that the Army is capable of exerting full control in the south, and fear that the United Nations may emerge as a scapegoat in any failure. The rugged southern hills are not so much a no man's land as they are an everyman's military area. In addition to the eight foreign armies grouped under the UN banner, Israel, Syria, the Palestian guerrillas, and Israeli- supported lebanese militiamen all have their fingers in the border pie.

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In itself, southern Lebanon is important mostly to the herdsmen and fruit farmers eking out a living from the land. Like the UN forces, they are caught in the middle. Like the UN, they would like to see peace.

For the remaining rival forces, however, southern Lebanon seems to have become simply a pressure cooker to be heated or cooled according to the exigencies of the overall Arab-Israeli conflict and the continuing battle for control of war-battered Lebanon.

"The first step toward really ending the violence in our country," a Lebanese government official told the Monitor, "is to prove that we [the government] are strong, and that we have an Army that will hold together" - unlike the force that shattered into sectarian factions during the 1975-76 civil war.

"And the first step in showing this capability is by sending the Army south," the official said, maintaining that President Elias Sarkis was determined to do so "soon."

"The problem," the official said, "is that various outside forces want to use the south. . . . And want Lebanon to remain weak and divided. That is why they don't want us to go south."

Three times in the past two years, the Government has moved to do just that. Once, some Army troops got to the southeastern town of Kaukab, only to be bombarded by the rightist militiamen.

Palestine Liberation organization (PLO) chief Yasser Arafat, in some of his toughest comments yet on an internal Lebanese issue, questioned in January whetner the Army seeks to curb only PLO-dominated areas without also taking on the israeli-supported Lebanese rightists.

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The virtually certain opponents of the Army's plans, according to government officials, Western and Arab diplomats, and political analysts in Beirut, include:

* Israel, which has given arms and political support to a breakway lebanese rightist Army faction controlling a five-mile border strip inside Lebanon. The israelis, diplomats here argue, could use south Lebanon as a corridor in an eventual war with Syria, or as a diversion, if pressured for major concessions in currenT Us-sponsored peace negotiations.

* Syria, which has well over 20,000 troops in Lebanon under an Arab League mandate that helped end the civil war.

"The syrians," an veteran third-world diplomat comments, "are historically suspicious of a strong Lebanon, and sending the Lebanese Army south might be the first step in the direction."

* The Palestian guerrilla forces, which effectively control the southern areas above the current UN buffer zone. If Lebanon's central government gets stronger, the guerrillas' freedom of movement and their effective ministate just north of the "Zionist enemy" would be in danger.

* The Lebanese rightists, who maintain that the Beirut government is under the thumb of "foreigners" - that is, the Syrians and Palestians.

The Lebanese government itself may remain part of the problem. This tiny Mediterranean nation, which until 1975 thrived as a center of Middle East commerce and tourism, always has needed to maintain a delicate balance between Christians and Muslims.

At the posh ski resort of Faraya, in the Christian-dominated hills north of the capital, sportsmen must pay a "tax" to Christian guerrilla forces along with their ski-lift ticket. Moviegoers in Christian east Beirut must do the same.

In predominantly Muslim west Beirut recently, an envoy from a leftist guerrilla leader calmly collected valuable merchandise from a hapless shopkeeper. "Unofficial protection payment," the merchant sighed.

Israel, Syria, the PLO, the United States, and others meanwhile trumpet support for Lebanon's "territorial integrity." But none is ready to support openly and effectively the Army move to the south.


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