May 23, 1983 12:00 PM

For hours, coffee cups were filled and emptied and filled again as the tired diplomats tried to hammer out an agreement. On one side of the table in Jerusalem sat Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his aides. On the other sat U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and his staff, who had come to the Mideast determined to negotiate the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian troops from embattled, long-suffering Lebanon. The talks, however, had snagged on the fate of Maj. Saad Haddad, a controversial Lebanese Christian who commands an Israeli-armed militia of some 2,000 soldiers.

“The Lebanese,” said Shultz, “do not agree to appoint Haddad commander-in-chief of South Lebanon.”

Begin’s eyes flashed behind his thick glasses. “Major Haddad is a Lebanese patriot,” the Prime Minister insisted. “He has spent many years fighting for the independence of Lebanon against Syrian and PLO occupation. He deserves nothing but admiration from the Lebanese government.”

“Maybe so,” muttered an exhausted American aide, “but he is the last obstacle to a withdrawal agreement.”

He was hardly the last, as rising tensions along the Syrian border last week plainly showed. But Haddad seemed sure to remain a controversial figure in the ravaged nation and a be-devilment to diplomacy in the region. To the Israelis, he is a loyal ally whose militia helped stabilize their border with Lebanon long before last June’s invasion. To the PLO and the Syrians, Haddad is a traitor who sold out the Arab cause in return for Israeli arms. To the Lebanese government of Amin Gemayel, he is a renegade army officer who has used a private army to carve out his own mini-nation in southern Lebanon. To the United States, he is a polarizing influence who has created a huge diplomatic problem. “The accusation has been made in Arab quarters that Haddad is an Israeli puppet,” says one high U.S. government official. “I don’t disagree with that.”

For a while, when the Israeli Cabinet voted to accept Shultz’s Lebanese withdrawal agreement, it appeared that the “Haddad problem” had been solved in a side letter to the agreement. According to early reports, Haddad would be placed under the command of a Beirut-appointed general and act as deputy commander in charge of anti-terrorist intelligence. But even while Shultz celebrated Israel’s acceptance of the treaty as a “milestone,” Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir was denying that Had-dad’s status had changed. “In the agreement we signed, there was no mention of Major Haddad,” Shamir told PEOPLE. “We shall not accept for Major Haddad the positions offered to him by Lebanon. We shall press for a top position—commander of the entire area. Even after we withdraw from Lebanon, we shall see Haddad gets all the backing he needs from us.”

During the high-level diplomatic jousting, the object of the debate waited impatiently at his heavily guarded home in the Lebanese town of Marjayoun. A short, stocky man clad in battle fatigues, combat boots and a khaki cap, Haddad, 45, chain-smoked and worried about his future. But after Shamir’s post-agreement promise of support, Haddad expressed satisfaction that his status was unchanged. “It’s business as usual for me,” he said. “Nothing in the agreement points to the contrary.”

A career Lebanese Army officer, Haddad trained at the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga. in 1974. During the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-76, he created his Christian-dominated militia to oppose the PLO, which had seized much of South Lebanon after being ejected from Jordan. In his fight against the PLO, Haddad found an eager ally in Israel, which trained his commanding officers, armed his troops, and set him up as the head of “Free Lebanon,” a quasi-independent six-mile-wide buffer zone along the Israeli border. (Israel has not been Had-dad’s only backer. American fundamentalist Christian groups—including George Otis of the California-based High Adventure Ministries—have supported the Voice of Hope radio station which broadcasts Haddad’s messages.) Last spring, when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon, Haddad’s militia aided them. Over the years his alliance has earned the major an Israeli medal for heroism, a Lebanese court-martial and dishonorable discharge in 1979 for disobedience, and the intense enmity of the Syrians.

Haddad’s image has frequently been tarnished by reports that his troops have been involved in atrocities. In 1980, according to the U.S. State Department, Haddad’s militia was responsible for the murder of two captured Irish soldiers serving in the U.N. force. In 1981, says the State Department, Haddad spoke over Voice of Hope to demand that the Lebanese government release $5 million in frozen salaries to his troops or his artillery would shell Sidon. When the money did not arrive, the militia shelled that city and the town of Hasbayya, where nine schoolchildren were wounded. On March 5, 1981 the State Department denounced that action as “criminal.”

Last September reporters, diplomats and a Danish TV crew claimed they saw soldiers wearing the badges of Haddad’s militia assisting in the widely publicized massacre of women and children at the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. Haddad vigorously denied that charge, and the official Israeli investigation commission cleared him of any connection with the massacre. Still, Haddad’s tactics have earned him much resentment in Lebanon. “Haddad’s people have acted as a kind of vigilante squad,” says Michael Hudson, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. “Haddad has a lot of enemies among the Lebanese.”

Nevertheless, Haddad’s presence has dramatically reduced violence in the area under his control, and since the end of the war last fall he has emerged as an increasingly important force in the beleaguered nation. In February, with the assistance of the Israeli Army, his militia moved into Sidon and expanded “Haddadland” to an area 28 miles deep with a population of some 600,000, predominantly Shi’ite Muslims. The move angered the Gemayel government, which views the occupation as a step toward a permanent partitioning of the already Balkanized nation.

Haddad, meanwhile, has steadfastly refused to abide by any agreement that would curtail his power. “I cannot accept any compromise about my role,” he said. “I have to be commander with full authority in the south. I have to continue in the way that proved to be the only way to save Lebanon.” As Israel and the U.S. debated his future, Haddad tended a coal fire in front of his stone house, roasting a chicken for lunch with his wife, Therese, 38, and his six daughters—guarded by his own militia and an Israeli soldier standing on his roof. “If I am not in charge of the south of Lebanon, then the PLO will be back and the Israeli border will be under fire again,” Haddad predicted. “If the PLO should try and return, my army will fight. I am a battle commander, not a headquarters desk officer.”

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