A scramble is under way in El Salvador to meet a deadline: Ronald reagan's inauguration as president Jan. 20. All elements in the Central american country's escalating civil conflict want to be in as strong a position as possible by that day in hopes of somehow influencing future US policy on El Salvador.
Virtually everyone involved in the El Salvador drama is convinced that Mr. reagan will be much friendlier to the country's rightists and military than was the Carter administration, which singled out those groups for human-rights criticism.
Each element in the struggle has a different concern:
* The Salvadoran left is worried that Mr. Reagan will give military aid to the government and help the right in various ways -- actions that would further undercut the left's precarious position.
* The right is convinced of the correctness of this proposition, but concerned that any liftist successes on the battlefield and any government strengthening on the political front before the inauguration will present the Reagan people with a fait accompli -- making it more difficult for the new administration in Washington to give aid to the right as it seems prepared to do.
* Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte is worried that the Reagan people will not give his centrist government the sort of moral and material support it has received from the Carter people -- a situation that could seriously undermine its position and lead to a rightist takeover.
* And United States officials on the scene worry that the Reagan administration will undo US support of the centrist government as the only viable alternative in the escalating civil war -- a step that undoubtedly would weaken the government to the point of ineffectiveness and therefore give aid and support to the right.
As a result of these concerns, leftist guerrillas have launched a major offensive in northern El Salvador in hopes of scoring a decisive win over government forces. The government, in turn, has taken the offensive against leftists elsewhere in the country to show the Reagan people that it is tough and capable of leading the country; right-wing vigilante groups are jockeying for political position and attacking leftists, adding to the already unstable situation; and the US is lending all the support it can muster to the government to prove, if possible, the validity of recent US policy.
In the process more than 100 fatalities were reported over the four-day Christmas weekend, adding to the 10,000 to 12,000 Salvadorans already killed in fighting during 1980.
The leftist offensive is taking place in the rugged, northern Salvadoran provinces of Chalatenango and Santa Ana. Some 1,500 guerrillas began the effort Dec. 27 and quickly scored victories against hard-pressed government troops. But the government sent in reinforcements Dec. 28 and thwarted the guerrilla effort to seize the important highway-junction town of Dulce Nombre de Maria, near the Honduran border. Both sides claimed victories, but at this writing the situation was unclear.
The leftist offensive is vital to its cause. In recent months, leftists have suffered a variety of losses ranging from a high rate of casualties in battles with government troops to the loss of their top leadership in a rightist-sponsored kidnapping in San Salvador. Large arms caches have been discovered by government troops and the leftists have lost much public support.
But the government is not in a very strong position either. Despite their successes against the left, internal dissension in government and the military, together with the constant attacks from the right as well as the left, has kept it from doing much more than holding its own. Moreover, the government is having a hard time living down its image as a violator of Salvadoran human rights.