With the assassination of former President Suleiman Franjieh's son, Tony, Lebanon has entered a new cycle in a seemingly endless drive toward self-destruction that is now well into its fourth year.

The outbreak of the "first Maronite war" among feudal and feuding warlords of Lebanon's dominat Christian sect is widely regarded a threat to the country's last semblance of unity.

Palestinians, leftists and Moslems in Lebanon squabbeld and ceased being effective forces in the past three years but whatever the Maronites had always managed to settle their differences without murdering their leaders.

"In the Levant you kill a big man's horse, not the man himself," a Lebanese politician said, explaining why no Maronite leaders were among the 1975-1976 civil war's estimated 60,000 victims.

The Phalange Party run by the Gemayels ended all that last week.

Before the war, the Southern Phalangists' brand of Ultra-nationalism - based on pre-World War II fascist and Nazi models - held little attraction in the north run by feudal "godfathers" like the Franjiehs.

But in the 1975-76 fighting against the Moslems and Palestinans, the Franjiehs had to call for help from the bigger and better-armed Phalangist militia. The Phalangist stayed on in the north to pick up recruits and muscle in on rackets, in Lghorta which is the field of the Franjiehs.

"It's a fight for power between two strong families and two regions," a Phalangist official said. "Their people are ready to kill and be killed."

But for the Phalange it could also be the way to become the paramount Christian party and to partition Lebanon once and for all between Moslems and Christians.

Before dawn on June 13, some 200 to 300 Phalangist militamen from all over Christian Lebanon rendez-voused outside the norther hill town of Ehden, the summer village for residents of Zghorta.

It was a precision military operation, reportedly inspired by a daring raid by an Israeli assassination squad against Beirut-based Palestinian leaders in 1973.

Like that raid, the Ehden operation relied on surprise. Many of the Phalangists were not informed of the mission's objective until the last minute.

Despite rising tensions between the Franjiehs and the Phalange - culminating in a series of killings - the northerners apparently never thought their southern rivals would dare strike at their home base.

When the Ehden killing stopped, Tony Franjieh, 36, his wife, their 3-year-old daughter and 30 others were dead.

Ever since, the question has not been if Sulieman Franjieh would launch a vendetta against the Gemayels, on [WORD ILLEGIBLE]

The 68-year-old clan leader ordered his family not to wear black at the funeral, for that color is worn only after vengeance has been wrought. Although he had suffered a heart attack a month earlier the elder Franjieh showed all his vigor of times past. In 1975, for instance, he was held responsible for starting a shootout during a requiem mass in a nearby village in which 17 persons died.

Over the weekend Franjieh had Zghorta-area priests read from the pulpit his direct warning: Northern Phalangists should turn in party cards and weapons to a special office or leave the region by month's end or be prepared to "be dealt with harshly."

Throughout the week, Phalangist delegations came to pay obeissance. Various northern towns asked to have their neutrality respected.

Indicative of the mounting tension was a decision by the rector of the Lebanese University authorizing northern students to take examinations in the prot city of Tripoli rather than risk traveling through Phalange territory south of Beirut.

Throughout this week, Franjieh and the Phalange traded insults and threats. The Phalangists blamed the Ehden massacre on all the warlords' favourite whipping boy - the state, or rather the lack thereof. Had the state punished the Franjiehs for killing northern Phalangists, the raid on Ehden would not have been necessary, the Phalangists said.

Gematel insisted that northerners wanted "liberation from the feudal and tribal regime" of the Franjiehs.

The five principal Zghorta families - given to feuding when not faced with an outside danger - signed a long letter accusing the Phalange of seeking to stamp out all other Christian movements, partition Lebanon into Moslem and Christian zones and settle the hated Palestinians permanently.

For the first time the racketeering and violence of life in Christian Lebanon - always hushed up for fear of reprisal - were discussed in public.

Residents of Zghorta charged that the Phalange rules its turf through "terror, money and imported ideas" - the latter an apparent illusion to its allegedly close ties with Israel. The Phalange was accused of taxing even "mothers and widows of martyrs" killed in the civil war, of extortion and holding fellow Christians for ransom.

Do the Gemayels, the letter asked, want "to become the rulers of Lebanon's cemeteries?"

Refusing reconciliation, a policy urged by many violence-weary Lebanese, the letter said, "We can never shake a hand dripping with innocent blood."

The Vatican, too, has called for reconciliation, alarmed by the prospect of Christians killing each other.

Tacityly bound up with the Franjiehs are former prime minister Rashid Karami and the Syrians, who have maintained more than 30,000 occupation troops in Lebanon since the civil war.

Karami, Franjieh's prime minister during the civil war and a northern Sunni Moslem Rival, buried the hatchet with the former president in May, thereby protecting the northern Christians' rear.

Syrian President Hafez Assad and the Franjiehs have been close friends since the 1975 church shooting drove the elder Franjieh across the border into Syria for asylum. Assad's brother, Rifaat, and Tony Franjieh were close friends and business associates.

Syria and the shaky Lebanese state of President Elias Sarkis now have a golden opportunity to break up the Christian militias - the Phalange and the Franjiths keep invoking the need of a strong state to justify taking the law into their own hands.

Caught in the middle is Camille Chamoun, at 78 a Christian former president. His National Liberation Party has no undisputed home turf like the Franjiehs in the north.

Although Chamoun's militia probably could muster 2,000 men in a pinch, it has fewer than the Phalange and cannot challenge the 5,000 gunmen under Genayel's son, Bechir.

It took Chamoun five days to decide to trek north to Zghorta for a condolence visit. He denounced - as a "precedent in our traditions" - the murders of Tony's wife and daughter.

Franjieh told Chamoun, "May God project you and your children," which some Lebanese took as a disguised warning for the visitor's sons, militia commander Dany and politician Dory.

But the real targets are Gemayel's son's, especially Bechir, 32, whom the Franjiehs are convinced planned and carried out the Ehden raid.

"I woundn't sell life insurance on him," a Western diplomat said. "He signed his own death warrant with that operation."

A fellow Phalangist said, "It won't be a walkover for the Franjiehs. Beirut is not their turf and the Gemayels are well protected."

Bechir, according to intimates, seems resigned. His line is that even if he dies the Phalange Party will continue, whereas the Franjiehs are at the end of the road.

He may be right. The Franjieh's 40-year struggle for hegemony, first in Zghorta then the nation, was already in decline during Suleiman's 1970-to-1976 presidency. Many Lebanese blame him for exacerbating the civil war of that time.

But a possibly aprochryphal story making the rounds this week indicates the Fanjiehs are made of sterner stuff.

The story goes that Lamia, one of Suleiman's daughters, was trying to break the news of the Ehden massacre to Tony's son, 11-year-old Suleiman as they drove north from Beirut to Zghorta.

"Suleiman, you remember our dog at Ehden? He was killed," she said. "By whom?" the boy asked. "The Phalangists."

"Did he manage to bite many of them before he died?" the boy asked. "Maybe," replied his aunt.

She said, "Suleiman, you remember Fadwa, the cook at Ehden? She, too, was killed."

"By whom?"

"The Phalangists," Lamia replied.

"She certainly was unable to defend herself, being a woman," the boy said. "Yes, "Lamia replied," she was shot from behind."

Finally, as they neared Zghorta, she said," Suleiman, you are grown up now, you are a man."

The child, guessing the truth, interrupted her. "They killed my father, didn't they?"


"I'm sure he fought back," the boy said. "Did he kill many Phalangists?"

Leaving nothing to chance, another aunt, Sonia, took the boy to the church, opened the coffins and said, "Your father, your mother, your sister, The Gemaytis killed them."

She then closed the coffins.