New barriers to peace in Lebanon
New obstacles have overshadowed optimism that Lebanese national reconciliation was finally about to begin. No sooner had the thorny issue of a venue for the conference apparently been solved - the presidential palace at Baabda was chosen and, according to United States officials, agreed to by the Syrians - when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt rejected it for security reasons.
And while this issue remained unresolved, the US-trained Lebanese Army faced the possibility that its chief of staff, a Druze, might defect to join Druze forces led by Mr. Jumblatt. Druze militiamen are currently hostile to the Lebanese Army. Such a defection would be a major setback for the Lebanese government because it is counting on the solidarity and rebirth of the national Army to help reunify the country.
But sources in the Beirut-based multinational force said that a preliminary committee preparing details of the national dialogue will meet Thursday in Beirut.
As the Lebanese waited on the movements of Jumblatt - who cut short a European tour to return to the region - it remained unclear whether these hitches were merely more maneuvering for position on the tortuous road toward an eventual dialogue - or whether they represented serious stumbling blocks. Reconciliation talks were a condition of the Sept. 26 cease-fire agreement.
Only last Monday, Lebanese and US sources were predicting that preliminary talks for preparing the conference on reconciliation were to begin on Wednesday and the actual conference a week later.
The conference - which US and Lebanese leaders see as critical to the rebuilding of this war-shattered country - is difficult to organize since it would gather leaders of all the bitterly opposed political and religious factions and require them to agree on a new formula for Lebanese power-sharing.
A senior US official expressed awareness on Monday of Jumblatt's security concerns. In December 1982, Jumblatt and his wife were nearly killed in a car bomb attack in Muslim west Beirut. He blamed hostile Christian militia forces. He has not returned to Beirut since. But this senior official believed that Jumblatt might in the end be persuaded to accept the Baabda venue, if the government offered him helicopter transport and other security measures as inducements. Syria's acceptance of the venue, according to this official, was also an important factor.
While the country awaits Jumblatt's return, so does the Druze chief of staff of the Lebanese Army, Maj. Gen. Nadim Haikim, whose potential defection, if carried out, could rock government plans to rebuild a Lebanese Army.
General Haikim was due back at his post after receiving permission to visit Walid Jumblatt's ancestral mountain home of Mukhtara upon invitation by Druze leaders. But as of Tuesday night he remained in Mukhtara, apparently awaiting Jumblatt's return. When asked if General Haikim had defected, a Druze spokesman said, ''Not yet, probably tomorrow.'' But reporters speaking with the Druze military leader on Tuesday said he hadn't yet decided to defect and wanted to confer with officers who had already quit.
Asked why the Druze officer would choose to defect after reportedly making a commitment four weeks ago to stay put, a Druze spokesman attributed it to ''(Lebanese President) Amin Gemayel's stubbornness'' in the talks preparing for the conference. The spokesman hinted that the defections could be reversed if talks progressed.
The Lebanese government is still paying the wages of the defectors. They have been considered conscientious objectors. But the departure of General Haikim could present major problems, because the chief of staff is traditionally a Druze and there would be no senior Druze officer to replace him.
Following Israel's withdrawal from the Shouf mountains, the Druze heartland, on Sept. 4, Druze militiamen battled Christian militias for supremacy over this area. Druze militiamen also fought the Lebanese Army, which they accused of being too close to the Christian militia.