Middle East Powers Deepen Lebanon's Shiite Rivalry

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THE rugged hills and harsh ravines of this remote and usually forgotten area seem far away from the troubles of the Middle East.

But most of the region's major players - including Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Syria, and Iran - are embroiled in the obscure and explosive struggle between rival Lebanese Shiite factions. It is a contest that has turned many local and regional alliances inside out.

Columns of smoke rise every day over Jarjoua, as the battle rages for control of the ridge-top village currently at the center of the struggle. It was captured July 16 by fighters from the radical, Iranian-backed Hizbullah, who have driven back repeated counterattacks by Amal, the moderate, Syrian-supported Shiite group.

At least 135 people are reported killed in this latest round of conflict between the rival Shiite groups. Villages for miles around have been hit by shellfire, triggering a mass exodus of virtually all but the fighters.

Amal sources admit that their efforts to dislodge Hizbullah from Jarjoua have been joined on the ground by fighters from the Syrian-oriented Baath Party and from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, another Damascus-linked Lebanese group.

These Syrian-backed factions thus find themselves colliding directly with Iran's radical Lebanese acolytes - despite the long-standing alliance between Damascus and Tehran. This, and the failure so far of Iran and Syria to mount a coordinated effort to settle the conflict between their respective Lebanese allies, has renewed speculation that Tehran and Damascus may be drifting apart - especially given the recent visit to Egypt by Syria's President Hafez al-Assad.

If one alliance is under question, the fighting has produced at least a quasi-alliance from an old enmity. Amal, which was for several years locked in a deadly struggle with the Palestinians in Lebanon, is undoubtedly the beneficiary of an attempt by PLO guerrilla forces from Yasser Arafat's Fatah group to step in and stop the inter-Shiite carnage.

Fatah forces first intervened in the area in January to head off a Hizbullah thrust westward. That intervention succeeded in containing the conflict, but did not defuse it. Now Fatah guerrillas have moved up deeper into the Iklim al-Tuffah hills, intercepting what Palestinian and Amal officials say was a Hizbullah attempt to drive south toward Nabatiyeh, the regional center.

But this time, the conflict has not been contained, and the Palestinians have found it harder to portray their involvement as neutral. …