A dramatic secret meeting in late April between two bitter Arab enemies, Syrian President Hafez Assad and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, has laid the groundwork for rapprochement between the key Middle East neighbors.

The clandestine two-day meeting, according to intelligence sources, was held in the southern Jordanian town of Al Jafr. The "honest brokers" who arranged the conference were Jordan's King Hussein and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdallah.

Assad and Saddam Hussein arrived at a Jordanian Royal Air Force base near the desert rendezvous late on the afternoon of Sunday, April 26, and met briefly. It was their first meeting since Iraq's war with Iran began in September 1980. Iraq understandably has considered Syria an enemy because of its active military, diplomatic and intelligence support of Iran.

It also was the two men's first meeting as rulers. In 1978, when they met during unity negotiations between their two countries, Hussein was Iraq's vice president.

The two presidents got down to business on April 27, conferring continuously for 12 hours. This is not unusual for Assad, who insists on intricate examination of every issue in diplomatic negotiations. "If Assad meets with someone for an hour, they probably only talked about the weather," one observer quipped.

The two were left alone for the most part and covered a wide range of issues that have separated their countries in recent years.

They could not agree on the major obstacle: being on the opposite sides of a bloody war.

But our sources said the two leaders' agreements on other problems were significant. They agreed, for example, to cease hostile covert operations. Syria has supported Kurdish separatists fighting in Iraq, while Iraq has supported subversive elements trying to overthrow Assad by assassination or other means.

In addition, the dictators reportedly promised to scale down inflammatory campaigns in their government-controlled news media, and agreed to set up future meetings of their prime ministers, interior ministers and oil ministers.

Oil is an important lubricant of any rapprochement between Syria and Iraq. Syria now gets about 20,000 barrels a day from Iran at no cost, and much more at cut-rate prices. If Syria dumps its ally Iran, Saudi Arabia has secretly pledged 50,000 free barrels a day -- but the Syrians are worried about the price they'll have to pay for the rest of their oil needs.

Hussein and Assad also discussed the possibility of reopening the Iraq-Syria oil pipeline, which was closed at the outset of the war. One of the earliest signs of eventual rapprochement will be the day oil starts coming through the Syrian end of the pipeline at Tartus.

The leaders tentatively agreed to meet publicly at the next Arab summit conference, scheduled for either September or November in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.