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Mandela and Buthelezi may soon meet, and it's about time

It looks now as if there's finally going to be a meeting between Nelson Mandela and his main rival for political power among South Africa's blacks. With more than 800 of their followers killed during the past three months of fighting, it's about time. Ever since Mandela was released from prison last February, he and other top officials of the African National Congress have been doing their best to stay as far away as possible from Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the chief of South Africa's 6-million member Zulu tribe.

As the ANC strategists saw it, the only reason Buthelezi wanted a meeting with Mandela was to get his political movement, known as Inkatha, recognized as an alternative to the ANC. The ANC, of course, had no interest in that.

But since the beginning of August, Buthelezi's Zulus and followers of the ANC have been waging what can only be described as a civil war. Fighting between the two groups isn't new. More than 4,000 followers of Buthelezi and Mandela have been killed in battles over the past four years. What has been new during the past three months is the intensity of the fighting, especially in the black settlements and townships surrounding Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city.

At first, most of the fighting was blamed on the Inkatha movement. The usual explanation was that Buthelezi was anxious that his Zulu-based group not get shut out of the peace talks that had begun between the ANC and South Africa's white minority government. What's become clear in recent weeks, though, is that the ANC and its followers have been far from blameless and have, in fact, instigated some of the township battles.

At a time when the ANC has officially renounced armed struggle as a means of getting rid of white minority rule, its refusal to approve talks between Mandela and Buthelezi to stop the killing among blacks seemed increasingly callous. That's why the ANC's announcement on Monday that Mandela was at last ready to meet Buthelezi on equal terms was so welcome.

No doubt, Buthelezi will do his best to use a meeting with Mandela to polish up a political image tarnished by too much cooperation with South Africa's white minority government. And no doubt, the ANC will no longer be able to claim it represents all South African blacks and that no valid rivals exist.

But if the ANC learns in the process that democracy means putting up with your political rivals, not shutting them out, then the transition to a new order in South Africa just might be a bit more successful.

One of the amazing things about the crisis in the Persian Gulf is how the international oil markets are responding to the flimsiest peace rumors. The latest example of this came on Monday when Saudi Arabia's defense minister seemed to be signaling a willingness to be flexible in negotiations with Iraq.

What Prince Sultan Ibn Abdulaziz said was that Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations would grant Iraq "all its rights" in the context of a settlement of the crisis. This was interpreted by many as a signal that the Saudis were backing away from the hard-line policy they share with the Bush administration, a policy that demands a full and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.

Even this vague hint of possible flexibility caused the price of crude futures to drop immediately. By the end of trading on Tuesday, a barrel of crude for December delivery was fixed at $29.37 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That's down from over $40 a barrel a few weeks ago when the situation on the ground was exactly the same but there was less speculation about some secret peace deal in the works.

Are you likely to see this 25 percent price drop at your local gas station the next time you fill up? Don't hold your breath. Industry experts say it usually takes two to three weeks for retail gasoline prices to reflect a significant drop in crude oil costs.

So how come it takes less than a day for your local gas station to figure in a price rise?

I wrote last week that Lebanon's civil war was far from over just because Syrian troops had crushed the main Christian militia opposing the central government led by President Elias Hrawi.

You don't need a crystal ball to figure these things out in Lebanon. If there's been anything you can count on in that country for the past decade and a half, it's that one especially bloody act of violence will quickly be followed by another.

This time, the followup was especially brutal. Gunmen using silencer-equipped pistols murdered Dany Chamoun, his wife and two small sons in their Beirut apartment.

Chamoun, son of former Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, was a close adviser of Gen. Michel Aoun, the Christian leader defeated by the Syrians last week. He was also one of the sharpest critics of President Hrawi, whom he accused of excessively close cooperation with the Syrians.

The Chamoun killings were reminiscent of the assassinations of Tony Franjieh, his wife and three-year-old daughter 12 years ago. Franjieh also was the son and political heir of a former Lebanese president. His killers were members of a rival Christian militia.

It's too early to say who killed Chamoun and his family this past weekend, but it's a good bet that Lebanon's troubles are far from over, maybe farther than ever.

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