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Moscow's mission in the Middle East -- keeping up with Uncle Sam

The Soviet Union, alarmed at Washington's heightened military profile in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, has begun hinting it may reply in kind. The official Soviet news media, in effect reversing a long trend of relative restraint, have begun picking up statements from splinter leftist and "liberation" groups pledged to topple pro-Western regimes in the area.

The show of support has intensified since Feb. 16, in apparent response to the announcement of US military communication exercises in the conservative Gulf sheikhdom of Oman.

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Moscow's toughened public stance may also have been encouraged by increasingly anti-Soviet noises from even nominally hard-line Gulf states like Iraq since the invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979.

Diplomats here say they are waiting to guage precisely what policy carry-over the Soviet's media shift may have.

But the surge of reports citing Mideast leftist and guerrilla forces -- and official emphasis here on close ties with Arab military clients like Syria and South Yemen -- was termed by one senior diplomat as a "disturbing departure."

Western and other diplomats have expressed private concern that the Soviets may move to heighten their own military profile in the Gulf region through allied parties lining up against more pro-Western governments.

After the US-sponsored peace between Egypt and Israel, a pact drawing nearly universal Arab condemnation, Moscow had seemed to be mellowing its approach to key moderate states, like rigidly Islamic and anticommunists Saudi Arabia, in hopes of prying them away from the West.

In private contacts with diplomats, the Soviets are said to have begun playing down the regional militancy of South Yemen, a virtual surrogate and a reported base for hundreds of soviet military advisers.

Moscow also showed signs of accepting -- with a distinct lack of credulity -- intermittent moves toward "unity" by South Yemen and the more pro-Western regime in North Yemen.

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But all the while, in the soviet view, Washington was consolidating its military presence in the area.

When Iran seized US diplomats in late 1979, Washington beefed up its naval forces in the Gulf region and began planning a Rapid Deployment Force that could be used to protect its Mideast sources of imported oil.

With the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980, the Americans agreed to a Saudi request for sophisticated US radar aircraft. US troops later held military exercises in Egypt.

The Soviets consistently protested what they termed a dangerous US military buildup. Perhaps partly in response, diplomats suggest, Moscow penned a formal friendship and cooperation pact with Syria late last year.

The Soviet media meanwhile toughened their approach toward Saudi Arabia and other moderate Gulf regimes, pictured as at least potential pieces in a grand Western military jigsaw.

But since the announcement of the communications exercises in Oman, the Soviets have broadcast yet harsher attacks on the US and relatively pro-Western Gulf states by militant Soviet allies -- including, again, the leftist and rebel groups.

Reports carried in the official media here have portrayed the Oman exercises as a fullscale military threat to neighboring South Yemen.

The Soviets news agency Tass reported condemnation of the US and Oman by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO), a South Yemeni-backed group that helped wage a decade-long struggle to pry away Oman's western Dhofar Province. Oman in effect crushed the uprising in the mid-1970S with the help of the late Shah's troops.

A Tass report appearing in Soviet nespapers Feb. 21 cited an alphabet soup of leftist groups condemning the Oman exercises.

The groups mentioned were the PFLO, along with the "National Liberation Front of Bahrain, the People's Front of Bahrain, the National Democratic Front of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Ye men), and the communist Party of Saudi Arabia."

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