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Lebanese Christian factions jockey for prominence. Syrian-backed pact, increasing Muslims' power, divides Christians

Clashes between Christian supporters and opponents of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel underline his uncomfortable position as well as the antagonism and fragmentation prevailing in the Christian camp. At the root of the tension and power struggle within the Christian community, observers say, is the recent Syrian-sponsored accord, designed to end more than 10 years of civil war. The accord, which was signed by leaders of Lebanon's three major militias Dec. 28, diminishes the traditional political power of the Christians and increases that of the Muslim population.

Even as Mr. Gemayel, a Christian, arrived in Damascus Monday for talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad on the December accord, Christian east Beirut erupted in violence. The battles pitted pro-Gemayel militiamen against those of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia commanded by Elie Hobeika. The fighting, which killed some 20 people and wounded 60, ended Monday night under a truce supervised by the Lebanese Army.

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Gemayel reportedly returned to Beirut yesterday, after several rounds of talks with Mr. Assad. But there was no immediate word on whether Gemayal had expressed support for the pact, signed by Mr. Hobeika and the leaders of the Shiite Muslim Amal movement and the Druze militia. Gemayel is known to share the reservations expressed by a number of prominent Christian leaders who say the accord cuts too deeply into their political power.

Informed, but neutral, Christian sources supported Hobeika's claim that his men have been the targets of a campaign of provocation by Gemayel's followers since Dec. 31. ``It is now a fight to the finish between them,'' one source said. ``It is a struggle for survival.''

According to some sources, Hobeika was finally goaded into a response which, while militarily inconclusive, may have rebounded to Gemayel's advantage.

``The fighting was militarily meaningless, since neither side is strong enough to make any serious advances and hold new ground,'' one source said. ``But Hobeika has lost ground politically, because Gemayel has shown those who oppose the Damascus agreement that Hobeika is not in full control. He has also shown the Syrians that Hobeika is not the man to represent the Christians.''

Another element in opposition to the agreement was resentment that Hobeika's faction had emerged, under Syrian patronage, as the only negotiator for the Christian side. ``Everybody knows that President Gemayel's objections are purely personal, because he was not consulted on the agreement,'' one Christian source says. ``This is a major source of weakness for those who oppose it on genuine political grounds.''

Although Christian circles believe the Syrians have already realized their mistake in relying on Hobeika alone to deliver the Christian side, they say it is unlikely that Gemayel will simply do an about-face and accept the accord under Syrian pressure and blandishments. ``If he did that he would lose what Christian support he has won through his opposition to the accord, and he's not strong enough to risk that,'' one observer commented.

Syria, Lebanon's acknowledged power broker, will now have to weigh carefully how it distributes patronage, given the absence of a reliable Christian strong man.

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There are several other contenders in the Christian camp. Within the Lebanese Forces is an important wing loyal to chief of staff, Samir Geagea. Numbering several thousand tough fighters, Dr. Geagea's followers are regarded as the only serious paramilitary force on the Christian side. It is the only force strong enough to change the situation on the ground. Geagea opposed the Damascus accord in principle, but held his forces neutral in the Gemayel-Hobeika struggle. Another player on the board is former President Camille Chamoun who, with his supporters, stoutly opposes the agreement.

Syria's wider strategic preoccupation with Israel, the Arab regional scene, and internal economic problems are seen by Christian observers as supporting their belief that Damascus is highly unlikely to try to impose anything on the Christians by force, whatever the outcome of President Gemayel's discussions there.

But few believe that the power struggle between Lebanon's Christians themselves has run its full course.

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