Despite their own problems with Libya's Col. Qaddafi, Arab and African leaders from Morocco eastward to Africa's Horn are likely to view the American air battle with Libyan jets as a dangerous escalation of tension in the U.S.-Soviet face-off in North Africa.
The Soviets, NATO analysts believe, have their hands too full with Poland and Afghanistan to undertake any rash action on behalf of Libya, their best ally and arms client in North Africa. Soviet commentaries on Wednesday's downing of two Libyan jets have reinforced that impression by indicating that Third World countries, not the Soviets, should respond to the American "provocations" against Libya.
But a trip through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and finally Libya itself just before the air battle suggests that there is deep concern in the region over U.S intentions that will be augmented by this week's events. The concern centers on the impression of conflicting alliances being built around the American commitments to Israel and Egypt and the Soviet support for Qaddafi and his radical friends in the area.
North African leaders believe that the Reagan administration does not sufficiently understand the tangled intricacies of regional politics. They fear that if the United States takes on Col. Qaddafi on Qaddafi's home ground in North Africa, it could fall into a political trap.
Shortly before the U.S. 6th Fleet maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra that preceded the air battle, President Reagan's taciturn trouble-shooter, ex-CIA operative Gen. Vernon Walters, visited Algiers and then the Moroccan capital of Rabat to assess the North African situation for the president.
In both capitals, Walters compared notes with locals on Qaddafi's actions.
He was told that there is a real chance to settle northwest Africa's most persistent and dangerous dispute, the five-year-old guerrilla war in the Western Sahara -- if Qaddafi, in Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr's words, "behaves" better.
There is one good reason for this hope: Qaddafi's role as main supplier of arms to the Polisario Front, whichn is fighting the Moroccan government. Morocco's King Hassan, solidly backed by Saudi Arabian cash and U.S. arms, is about to meet nine other African leaders in Nairobi Aug. 24. They will discuss how to hold the referendum Hassan has conceded is now necessary for the disputed Western Sahara. Morocco occupies that territory against the opposition of the independence-seeking Polisario Front guerrillas.
Hassan hopes that Qaddafi will halt arms to the Polisario, though Qaddafi has not promised this. A U.S.-Libyan collision and its repercussions, the Moroccans fear, would endanger the budding Moroccan-Libyan detente, including exchange of ambassadors, which has helped raise hopes of a Saharan settlement.
Anxious Polisario representatives in Algiers recently sent their defense minister to Tripoli to ask Qaddafi's intentions. They appear to fear that ultimately, Algeria might abandon the 200,000 or so Palestinian-like Saharan refugees on Algerian soil to an uncertain fate under Moroccan rule. The Polisario, in fact, may be the only North Africans who might welcome big U.S.-Libyan trouble, if such trouble assured continuance (or increase) of Libyan support for their war on Morocco.
Algerian President Chadli Benjedid deeply wants an end to the Sahara conflict, which drains Algeria's resources and carries a constant threat of real war with Morocco.
Algerian is also vexed by an unpublicized but bitter Algerian-Libyan frontier dispute. Col. Qaddafi claims a pocket of Algerian territory rich in oil and natural gas. He has even tried to persuade Conoco Corporation of the United States to go against U.S. State Department advice and help Libya drill new wells for Libya in the disputed zone. Conoco has refused.
Despite misgivings about their old revolutionary ally Qaddafi, whose best friends were recently purged from the Algerian leadership, the Algerians officially informed Washington about a week before the Aug. 19 air battle that they were worried about U.S. intentions toward Libya.
Regional shock caused by any d.S. or Egyptian moves to overthrow Qaddafi might be very great, the Algerians warned.
"What would happen," asked a Tunisian who believes Qaddafi is a serious threat to Tunisia, "if you attack Qaddafi? I will tell you. You will see all the Arabs uniting around him, whether they like him or not.
"They would do this first because he is an Arab, and you are Americans. Also, more important, they fear the Russians are getting more of a hold on Qaddafi because of your pressure on him."
France, Italy and Greece have all been helping to train Libya's armed forces, especially the Air Force and Navy," said one Italian naval officer recently, "but its sheer firepower, if not the expertise of its personnel, is improving spectacularly through all the Soviet arms purchases. So Libya can support the Soviets logistically, and its missile boats and submarines could already sting the Western navies in the Mediterranean."
French Socialist President Francois Mitterrand lifted on July 15 the temporary arms embargo his predecessor Valery Giscard d'Estaing imposed on Libya. Mitterrand also permitted France's Societe Nationale Elf-Acquitaine oil company to go ahead with new oil operation, which, like the arms deliveries, were suspended last October, when Qaddafi invaded Chad, a French sphere of influence.
Libya is now getting 10 new French Combattante II fast-attack missile boats contracted for in 1977, and 32 Mirage F1 jet fighters are on order from Avions Marcel Dassault/Breguet Aviation of France. These and some Matra Super 530 air-to-air missiles considerably bolster Qaddafi's 53,000-man armed forces.
The French decision permits Spain's Bazan shipyards to supply a reported four Daphne-class French-designed and Spanish-built submarines to Qaddafi. Libya already operates three Yankee-class Soviet-built undersea craft. There is strong evidence that in April 1972, Qaddafi ordered an Egyptian submarien commander then under his jurisdiction to torpedo and sink the Queen Elizabeth II, during the luxury liner's voyage to Israel. The commander and President Sadat thwarted Qaddafi's plans, according to Sadat.
Despite the Soviet training given his submariners, Qaddafi has so far not permitted the Soviet Navy to use Libyan ports. However, the offshore anchorage of Salum, on the Libyan-Egyptian frontier, is now a main focus of operations for the Soviet fleet in the Mediterranean.