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Israel's new opportunity to withdraw from Lebanon

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Israel seems suddenly to be hiking pressure on the Lebanese government to station a special Army brigade in south Lebanon and facilitate an Israeli pullback there.

The move by Israel came Sunday amid growing domestic sentiment for the Israelis to quit the country they invaded in June 1982 but leave friendly forces on their northern border.

What Israel did was to leak reports that a Lebanese Army officer named Col. Elias Khalil would replace the main pro-Israeli militia leader in the south, Maj. Saad Haddad, who died Saturday.

What the Israelis did not say is that Col. Khalil is the man whom the Lebanese Army has quietly been grooming to head a new ''territorial brigade'' in the south. Since November, Lebanon has been holding talks with Israel on just how and when such a force might take over from departing Israeli troops.

The Lebanese Army quickly denied the Israeli report - reflecting what diplomats saw as profound reluctance on the part of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and the Army to risk such a move at present.

Beirut is presumably fearful of opposition to the move from Syria, from the late Haddad's own men - and, perhaps most importantly, from the majority Shiite Muslim population of south Lebanon.

Col. Khalil, like both the late Haddad and Mr. Gemayel, is from Lebanon's traditionally dominant Maronite Christian community. Col. Khalil hails from the village of Mardoucheh, near the south Lebanese #oast.

The ''territorial brigade'' was envisaged in a United States-mediated peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel last May. Syria is understood to have reiterated its opposition to that accord, calling instead for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal, in weekend talks with US envoy Donald Rumsfeld.

The south Lebanese Shiites have been slightly less categorical in opposing the brigade idea, but by no means support it under present circumstances, either.

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