White House holds criticism on Ortega's peace moves

The Reagan administration is delaying its judgement on whether a plan to bring peace to Central America is working. The peace plan, inspired by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez, was to have taken effect last week. It calls for, among other things: a cease-fire, various internal reforms, and an end to outside military aid for guerrillas seeking to overthrow governments in the region.

But by last Thursday the Central American Presidents had taken only some of the steps called for in the plan. The five leaders are working to meet the plan's conditions by January - when they are scheduled to meet again.

The peace plan is of particular importance to the governments of El Salvador, which the US supports, and Nicaragua, which it opposes. In the past, the Reagan administration has been harshly critical of Nicaragua's Sandinista government, charging it with acting as a Soviet surrogate in spreading unrest in the region and repressing its own populace.

In the face of a number of political moves by the Sandinista leadership, however, the administration has largely fallen silent as the peace process continues.

Late last week, for example, the Sandinistas - reversing themselves - agreed to a series of indirect talks with the contra rebels seeking the overthrow of their government. (Story, Page 11.) Until now, the Sandinistas have said they would only talk with Washington. The contras receive aid and logistical support from the United States. The US maintains that the Nicaraguan government must talk with the contras.

The Sandinistas named Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo the intermediary. Cardinal Obando y Bravo, who has been a harsh critic of the Sandinistas, also heads the country's National Reconciliation Commission, which is seeking to restore political rights within the country.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra said the move to hold indirect talks was taken to ``remove any pretext'' for claiming that the Sandinistas were not complying with the peace plan, which calls for a negotiated cease-fire between the rebels and the government.

The Sandinistas ended a month-long unilateral cease-fire Saturday, but there were no reports of fighting.

Privately, US officials remain skeptical about Sandinista intentions.

One informed source says the administration still believes that, at a minimum, some $30 to $40 million in provisional contra aid is needed to ensure that the contras remain a viable force in the field while the peace process continues.

But the administration is withholding judgement publicly, and is - for the time being at least - refusing to outline its plans for further support of the contras.

State Department spokesman Charles Redman says the Central American peace plan ``if implemented in good faith ... offers the best hope for peace in Central America in almost a decade.''

Mr. Redman added that the US will ``look forward to statements by the Central Americans themselves on the status of implementation in addition to our own review of the situation.''

Some of those judgements could be made this week at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington. President Ortega, US Secretary of State George Shultz, and President Reagan are all scheduled to speak at the meeting.

In the meantime, a string of US lawmakers and private citizens are visiting Central America to make their own assessments.

Some are apparently coming away convinced of the sincerity of the Sandinistas' commitment to the peace process. New York City Mayor Edward Koch, who is leading a private delegation through the region, started his visit to Nicaragua by comparing the Sandinista leadership with the dictator they overthrew, Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

After meeting with Ortega, Mayor Koch told reporters the Nicaraguan President ``deeply wants peace.''

One US official, however, insists that President Ortega is pursuing a policy of ``minimum compliance'' with the peace plan - just enough apparent compliance, the official says, to blunt the administration's call for more contra aid, but not enough to threaten the Sandinista hold on power.

The contra aid cause could be set back by the release later this month of the final report of the congressional committees investigating the Iran-Contra affair, in which profits from the covert sale of arms to Iran were funneled to the contras.

The report is expected to be highly critical of the Reagan administration for permiting, and in some cases encouraging, the affair.

The President is also preoccupied with a number of domestic and foreign policy problems.

In this heated political environment, a US official says, ``we're just taking it day by day'' when it comes to assessing the situation in Central America.

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