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With an eye toward Mideast peace, US welcomes Algerian leader

The Washington visit of Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid symbolizes a welcome thaw in US-Algerian relations. For the United States, the visit -- the first by any Algerian leader since that nation achieved independence in 1962 -- is seen as an opportunity to reinforce Algeria's role as a force for greater moderation in the Middle East. Although Algeria has not endorsed the Camp David peace process, President Bendjedid recently broke ranks with radical Arab states that oppose the United Nations Resolution 242 as the basis for Middle East peace.

US officials also say Algeria's reputation as an effective mediator of inter-Arab disputes could make Bendjedid an asset to the Mideast peace process.

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``Algeria's a country that talks to everybody,'' says one State Department source. ``Bendjedid's not in anybody's camp. For that reason, Algeria could be key to helping mobilize moderate Arab support behind the recent peace plan announced last month by Jordan's King Hussein. As a key swing state, Algeria is important in this regard.''

High on Bendjedid's agenda for this week's meetings with administration and congressional leaders will be the question of proposed new arms sales. The Algerians say they are eager to diversify their arms purchases in an effort to reduce dependence on the Soviet Union. Paving the way for Bendjedid's visit, the Reagan administration agreed Monday for the first time to allow Algeria to purchase US arms.

Bendjedid is also seeking expanded trade ties and a more direct US role in helping to settle the 10-year war between Morocco and the guerrilla forces of the Polisario Front in the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara.

While widely welcomed here, Algeria's diplomatic overtures may pose some difficult policy choices for the US, which finds itself in the middle of a complex struggle for influence in the region of north Africa known as the Maghreb. The US has long had close ties to Morocco, Algeria's chief regional rival.

But in negotiations here this week, experts say, Bendjedid will try to take advantage of Morocco's refusal to reach a settlement with the Polisario rebels and of its political union with Libya announced last summer. According to Morocco, Algeria has actively supported the Polisario resistance forces in order to weaken Morocco and gain access to Atlantic ports. In response, Morocco last year entered into an unexpected alliance with Libya.

Under the 13-year rule of Bendjedid's predecessor, Houari Boumedienne, the US and other Western countries were kept at arm's length. A militant champion of Arab and third-world interests, Boumedienne broke off relations after the US supported Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Under the Bendjedid government, relations with Algeria have taken a decided turn for the better. Bendjedid won early plaudits from the Carter and Reagan administrations for playing the role of key broker in helping to secure the release of the 52 American hostages held in Iran.

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Meanwhile, US trading relations with Algeria have improved, reflecting efforts by the Bendjedid regime to broaden its commercial contacts with the West. Today, officials of the two countries will sign a joint economic agreement that is expected to spur trade, investment, and the transfer of US technology to Algeria.

As Reagan and Bendjedid talk today, the US diplomatic task will be to nurture warming relations with Algeria without complicating relations with Morocco, experts here say. Early indications are that latitude for maneuver may be relatively small. The Moroccan government has already expressed concern about Algeria's request for new arms aid.

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