BEIRUT — Dressed in bedroom slippers and the soiled green uniform of a surgeon, the doctor smiled in resignation. "People are scared again," he said, "and I think many will leave."
Among the doctors and staff at the American University Hospital, the mood was even more somber than usual Sunday at the war-racked teaching institution, still regarded as the best in the Middle East even though its overflowing casualty wards more often resemble a field hospital.
For many debating whether to leave, the argument grew much stronger after Saturday's attack on a red-and-white school bus carrying Christians from the university campus in predominantly Muslim West Beirut to the so-called Green Line dividing the west from the Christian east side of the capital.
Three doctors and a hospital administrator were killed in the assault.
"It will be very surprising if the same number of doctors and nurses who crossed over last week come again this week," said a Christian doctor, who asked not to be identified.
"I think everybody has contemplated leaving," said another. "We didn't because of gratitude to the institution and the feeling we shouldn't abandon it in difficult times."
The assault on the bus, which was carried out by unidentified gunmen, came as a severe blow to a three-week-old Syrian security plan for the Muslim sector or the capital, where lawlessness has reigned since February, 1984.
The security plan has resulted in the first deployment of Syrian troops in the capital since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June, 1982. The bus attack took place just beyond the area of Syrian supervision.
The incident has inflamed emotions on all sides here, with one newspaper calling it "barbarous, odious and vile," and saying it was "the first blow" struck against the Syrian pacification plan.
Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a spiritual adviser to Hezbollah (Party of God), a fundamentalist Shia Muslim group with close ties to Iran, condemned the attack Sunday, saying there is a "devious plan to keep the lawlessness in West Beirut."
Justice Minister Nabih Berri, who also heads the mainstream Shia militia known as Amal, vowed that the perpetrators of the attack will not go unpunished.
Many commentators noted the parallels in Saturday's attack to a bus incident in April, 1975, in which 33 Palestinians were killed by Christian gunmen while traveling in East Beirut. The incident is often regarded as the opening volley in Lebanon's 1975-76 civil war.
The leftist daily newspaper As Safir remarked that Saturday's bus incident could be seen as "warning Christians against returning to West Beirut and preventing any form of contact between them and their Muslim compatriots."
In addition to being viewed as an assault against the Christian presence in West Beirut, the attack was also seen as directly threatening the American University because of its American connections. The university receives more than $11 million last year from the U.S. government.
"AUB was the target," said one doctor at the American University Hospital, where a solitary Syrian soldier stood guard in distinctive helmet and red camouflage fatigues of special forces troops.
As Safir said the bus incident was an "attempt to kidnap the American University and its hospital," an effort it said began two years ago with the assassination of University President Malcolm H. Kerr.
2 Officials Kidnaped
Since then, hospital administrator David P. Jacobsen of Huntington Beach, Calif., and Thomas Sutherland, dean of the university's school of agriculture, have been kidnaped. An American University librarian, Peter Kilburn, was kidnaped in December, 1984, and killed in April, apparently in retaliation for the American bombing raid against Libya.
It was not clear whether the bus attack was timed to coincide with a meeting taking place in Cyprus of several members of the university board of trustees, who are considering ways of meeting the university's future financial needs.
The Christian militia known as the Lebanese Forces seized upon the incident to renew its demand that the university move from its present campus in West Beirut to the eastern sector, where the university currently operates an off-campus program for Christians who are too frightened to cross into West Beirut.
"This bitter incident reconfirms the necessity for the American University board of trustees to decide to move it to East Beirut and reinforce the branch already existing there," the Lebanese Forces said in a statement.
"The Lebanese Forces guarantees the security of all people working at the American University and calls for immediate punitive action against the criminals involved," the statement said.
According to passengers on the bus who were interviewed Sunday, it appeared that even greater casualties were averted in the attack because the bus driver sped away rather than stop.