BUENOS AIRES — AS if controlling Argentina's worst economic crisis were not enough of a challenge for President-elect Carlos Sa'ul Menem, rumblings in the Army are reminding him of another fire he must damp down when he takes office on Saturday. After more than five years of hostilities with outgoing President Ra'ul Alfons'in, who began his term by prosecuting human-rights abusers in the military, the armed forces are looking to Mr. Menem to address old grievances against the government.
And within the Army itself, generals and junior officers are ranged on either side of a bitter struggle for control of the service. Both sides are expecting the President-elect to come down in their favor.
Menem and his designated defense minister, Italo Luder, say that they intend to resolve what has become known as ``the military question'' as soon as they take office. But they are giving few hints about the nature of their intentions.
``Both a pardon and an amnesty are tools that could perhaps be used'' to put an end to pending human-rights trials against 18 senior officers, Menem said recently. ``Or they might not be used.''
His spokesman, Humberto Toledo, suggests that a legislative solution will be sought: ``Judicial procedures should continue for the time being, and then Congress should review'' the situation.
``There are laws in force, and while they are in force they must be obeyed while new legislation is drawn up to resolve this problem,'' he says.
Behind the scenes, though, frantic negotiations are underway, and military sources say Mr. Luder has been meeting both top generals and the rebellious junior officers involved in the last two years' uprisings.
At stake is the future of the 18 officers still facing trial for alleged human-rights violations during the last military dictatorship. ``What the Army wants to avoid most,'' says human-rights activist Emilio Mignone, ``is all the publicity about the `dirty war' that renewed public trials would involve.''
But equally important is the fierce power struggle under way in the Army for control of the service. That battle pits most of the generals - publicly loyal to constitutional government - against a group of younger officers gathered around the two ultranationalist and extreme right-wing leaders of the three rebellions - Lt. Col. Aldo Rico and Col. Mohammed Ali Seineldin.
Colonels Rico and Seineldin, says a source close to the rebel group, want nothing less than control of the Army. Menem, the source insists, ``will have to name a commander in chief acceptable to us,'' which would mean forcibly retiring some two dozen senior generals.
They are also pressing for court martials for insubordination to be dropped against 92 men involved in the three rebellions, and for an amnesty that would cover all officers already sentenced or facing trial for human-rights abuses.
``But the essential and priority issue is who runs the Army,'' the rebel source argues. ``All the rest can be discussed later.''
Seineldin, himself in detention awaiting a court martial for leading last December's uprising, issued an angry statement 10 days ago that included three generals amongst a list of political ``enemies.''
That provocation galvanized Army chief Gen. Francisco Gassino into speeding up court martials against three of Seineldin's followers, who were last week found to be ``unfit to exercise their rank.''
Menem had hoped that Alfons'in would close the chapter of military unrest, perhaps with a pardon for rights abusers. Blaming Alfons'in's policies for creating the problem, the President-elect said it would be ``logical, necessary, and convenient'' for Alfons'in to solve it.
But Alfons'in's political future depends on not giving way to such pressure. ``The only meaning left to Alfons'in's government is saying `no' to an amnesty'' says one close associate. ``He owes his place in history to putting Videla'' and other generals who ran the last dictatorship ``behind bars.''
If Alfons'in was always the enemy for Colonel Seineldin and Colonel Rico, Menem has sometimes appeared as a possible friend, and both rebel officers supported him at the recent elections.
Now, says a rebel Army spokesman, ``the signals we are getting from the Menem camp are not bad at all, but it's a question of their credibility.'' The President-elect is still keeping everybody guessing, as he seeks a way to rid himself of an awkward problem without simply bowing to military pressure and devaluing the young democracy he has been elected to lead.