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Mideast agitation spurs US, Arab diplomacy. `Moderate' Arab nations show signs of coalescing

The surprise meeting in Baghdad this week among the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq is the clearest demonstration so far that a so-called ``moderate axis'' is forming to counterbalance the gains of religious and political militants in the Middle East. No Egyptian head of state had visited the Iraqi capital since 1979, when most Arab states broke diplomatic ties with Egypt after then-President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel.

Jordan's King Hussein broke ranks with the Arabs last fall and resumed full ties with Egypt. It was assumed by many diplomats and Egyptian officials that Iraq would soon follow suit. But Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has held back, possibly because of his preoccupation with the Persian Gulf war. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called on Iran Tuesday to negotiate an end to the war with Iraq.

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President Mubarak's trip to Baghdad Monday kept alive his role as peacemaker in the region in the wake of his less-than-successful trip to Washington earlier this month. Mubarak failed to persuade the Reagan administration to take an immediate, dramatic role in restarting the Middle East peace process.

One big stumbling block for the Americans has been Hussein and Mubarak's insistence on some role for the Palestine Liberation Organization in any renewed peace talks. The United States and Israel refuse to talk to the PLO, which they consider to be a terrorist organization.

Hussein and Mubarak have said they fear that unless progress is made in settling Israel's dispute with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians, the growing strength of Shiite Muslim fundamentalists in Iran and Lebanon -- and in politically militant states such as Syria -- will engulf the region in warfare. Indeed, Mubarak's appeal for negotiations to end the Gulf war came amid reports of fresh fighting between Iraq and Iran and among factions in Lebanon.

Ground battles and heavy shelling of cities in both Iran and Iraq have continued. Iraq claimed to have decisively repulsed an Iranian ground offensive along the marshy border between the two states. But Baghdad was shelled while Mubarak and Hussein were in the capital and again Tuesday.

European airlines evacuated hundreds of passengers from Tehran just hours before midnight GMT Tuesday, after which Iraq had said it would consider Iranian airspace a war zone.

In Lebanon, Shiites kept up their attacks on retreating Israeli soldiers after Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres announcement that most of Israel's occupying force will leave south Lebanon in ``eight to 10 weeks.'' The Israelis continued to hit hard at Shiite villages, making arrests, searches, and at times shooting villagers they identified as ``terrorists.''

Attention in Beirut, however, has been riveted on the stand-off between Christian militiamen and President Amin Gemayel. Muslims and Druze have threatened a new round of civil war if Christian militiamen do not abandon their rebellion against President Gemayel, a Christian.

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The week-old rebellion of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia against the Christian Phalange Party leadership posed the most serious setback for Syrian policy in Lebanon since the signing of the May 17 agreement in 1983 between Gemayel and Israel. Under Syrian pressure, Gemayel later abrogated the agreement, designed to end Israel's occupation. That made Syria the chief power broker in Lebanon and a force to be reckoned with in any Mideast peace talks.

The Syrians have warned that they will not allow Gemayel, whom they firmly back, to be undercut in the Christian community. Syrian troops remained massed Tuesday just below the northern city of Tripoli, although it appears unlikely that the Syrians will intervene militarily.

One deterrent is the presence, at least for now, of Israeli troops in the south. Israel has said it will not interfere if Syria moves in. But the Syrians, one Lebanese source aligned with them said, are wary of a possible Israeli attempt to protect their one-time Christian allies should they be seriously threatened. Another deterrent is public sentiment among the Christians, which seems to rest with the rebels now.

``They will use their allies first,'' said an official of a Syrian-allied militia. Those allies include the Druze, the Shiites, and the Franjiehs, a Christian family.

At least four people were reported killed Tuesday in fighting outside Sidon in south Lebanon that broke out between Shiites in the Lebanese Army and the rebel Lebanese Forces militiamen.

The Lebanese Forces revolt is aimed at ending Christian concessions to the Lebanese Muslims and limiting Syrian influence in the state. The Lebanese Cabinet met in an extraordinary session Tuesday to discuss repealing laws. The repeals were supposed to be the first step toward political reforms demanded by Muslims and Druze who want political power distributed more equitably.

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