Chadian President Hissene Habre and rebel leader Goukouni Oueddei, locked in a gradually escalating battle for control of their impoverished African country, were once comrades-in-arms against non-Moslem governments in Chad and, once victorious, served together in a coalition government.

Both Habre and Goukouni come from the northern, predominantly Moslem part of Chad, and fought together in the 1970s in the Chad National Liberation Front to oust a succession of postcolonial governments dominated by Christian and animist southerners. The southerners, who make up slightly less than half of Chad's 4 million people, were ousted from power in 1979 after 14 years of intermittent civil war. The violence, however, continued.

"Once the rebels got power they started fighting among themselves," said William Zartman of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.

William Lewis, director of George Washington University's security policy studies program, said, "There is a built-in basis for ethnic, tribal and religious rivalry in Chad."

However, noting that Chad is a landlocked Central African nation with few natural resources and a per capita income of only $100 annually, most experts say it is of little strategic importance. But it has been catapulted to prominence by the involvement of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's military forces on behalf of the rebels.

"The central issue isn't Chad, it's Qaddafi," said Lewis.

France, which ruled Chad as a colony until 1960, helped bring about an agreement among 11 factions in 1979 that created a government of national reconciliation headed by Goukouni. Habre was briefly the defense minister, but broke with the government soon after it was formed.

"Habre's political ambition is the one constant factor," said Alex Rondos, a former journalist now studying U.S.-African relations; Zartman said Habre is "more of a nationalist than Goukouni." Rondos and other African observers agree that there are few ideological differences between Habre and Goukouni. But while the two have been locked in "a raw power struggle" since June, as one observer said, they do have differing views of Libya.

"Habre has been consistently anti-Libyan," Rondos said.

In the winter of 1981 Goukouni's ties to Libya reached a peak with the announcement that the two countries would become unified. This move, however, troubled some western governments that wanted to curb Qaddafi's growing influence, according to Lewis.

Lewis, a State Department African specialist until 1979, said the United States, France and some African nations began giving Habre "pretty much covert" support to counter Libya's mounting influence in Chad. When Libyan troops abruptly left Chad in 1981, Habre's forces quickly moved on Ndjamena, the capital, and ousted Goukouni.

But control of the government in Ndjamena is no assurance of stability because, as Rondos said, "there is a very tentative notion of a national government" in Chad.

With Habre and Goukouni again battling over their scarred, destitute country, France is being pressured by the United States and some African nations to give Habre increased military support.

But President Francois Mitterrand, a socialist, successfully campaigned in 1981 against the tradition of French intervention in Africa. Moreover, Zartman said, the French are reluctant to intervene in the current Chad conflict "because they have been burned there so many times."

France, which had troops stationed in Chad until 1980, supported Goukouni's government as well as its predecessors. Zartman said the French are "interested in working with whoever is in power" but added that the African country's constant instability is taxing France's patience.

"The French very wisely see this as a no-win situation," said George Washington University's Lewis. He added that so long as the "recalcitrant groups" remain at odds with each other, "there is no prospect for stability."

However, with French prestige as a reliable ally to African countries at stake, increased involvement in Chad is widely viewed as the only way to retain its credibility and deter Qaddafi's expanding influence.