A RECENT cover of Britain's satirical magazine Private Eye shows three commandos poised for a rooftop assault. They're dressed to look like men of Britain's Special Air Service Regiment which shot and killed an IRA trio in Gibraltar last March. One hooded, gun-toting trooper asks another why he shot IRA man Sean Savage 16 times. ``I ran out of bullets,'' the soldier replies laconically. The suggestion that SAS agents would have pumped more lead into Sean Savage if only their favorite handgun - Browning automatic pistols - held more ammunition will no doubt confirm the British government's view that Private Eye covers are invariably in poor taste.
But the magazine cover, for all its calculated offense, reflects a growing concern in Britain about the shadowy activities of the SAS in its twilight struggle with the Irish Republican Army.
Is the SAS ``the world's toughest antiterrorist commando unit,'' as Time magazine once called it? Or is it, as the IRA and its sympathizers claim, a ruthless assassination unit that prides itself on taking no prisoners?
There was a time in Britain when the initials ``SAS'' meant nothing more innocuous than the Scandinavian Airlines System.
But all that changed on May 5, 1980, when the SAS stormed the Iranian Embassy in London as a nation watched on television.
The Embassy had been seized by Iranian terrorists opposed to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On the fifth day of the siege, black-clad SAS men, wearing respiratorsand carrying submachine guns and stun grenades, stormed the building. In 11 minutes they shot and killed five of the six terrorists and freed 22 hostages.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pronounced the SAS operation ``absolutely wonderful'' and said it made her ``proud to be British.'' But for many people in Britain, pride in the rescue waned somewhat when it emerged that the SAS troopers reportedly had killed all but one of the terrorists after they had thrown down their guns.
The SAS prides itself on its toughness; some call it ruthlessness. The regiment is the most elite unit in a country renowned for elite units.
Created during World War II, the SAS unleashed its destructive talents on German and Italian airfields in North Africa, destroying some 400 planes in lightning attacks.
After the war the SAS helped smash a communist insurgency in Malaya. Later the regiment fought in southern Arabia.
By 1970 the SAS found itself in the pro-British Sultanate of Oman helping suppress a Marxist-inspired rebellion.
During Britain's 1982 Falklands war with Argentina, the SAS returned to its first love: wrecking aircraft.
The British Ministry of Defence is silent where the SAS is concerned. The regiment is based in western England, but just how many men serve in it is unclear. Estimates put the number at 600 to 750, all volunteers from other regiments.
``I don't think they're your average moron with a machine gun,'' says James Adams, author of a new book titled ``Secret Armies'' on the SAS and other elite units. ``They tend to be taken on board ... because they're bright, can operate alone, and have got lots of initiative.''
Those aspiring to wear the regiment's sand-colored beret, with its winged dagger badge and ``Who Dares Wins'' motto, are put through grueling physical and psychological tests. Many an applicant's hopes die on a range on bleak Welsh hills known as the Brecon Beacons. Here aspiring troopers are subjected to brutal endurance marches.
For those who don't wash out on the Brecon Beacons, there's a jungle warfare course, parachute training, and survival instruction. Nothing is more fearsome, though, than the interrogation SAS hopefuls undergo. Stripped naked and deprived of sleep, they're subjected to relentless questioning to see if they'll crack. Of every 30 soldiers who try out for the SAS, only one is accepted.
SAS troopers are unspeakably fit, superbly trained, and breathtakingly hard-boiled. They're skilled in the use of weapons and explosives. Many are linguists and all can kill with their bare hands. The SAS is trained to tackle terrorists, protect nuclear-weapons sites, and wreak havoc behind enemy lines in time of war. Some say the regiment has even carried out cloak-and-dagger operations for Britain's domestic and foreign intelligence services, MI5 and MI6. Mr. Adams says SAS men may even have operated behind the Iron Curtain. ``I doubt if we will ever know a fraction of what they do ... nor should we,'' he observes.
The SAS got its first taste of Ulster service in 1969. Of all the British units that have served in Ulster, nothing instills such dread in the IRA as the shadowy presence of the SAS.
In May 1987 it ambushed and killed eight IRA men who apparently were about to ram a mechanical digger loaded with explosives into a police station in County Armagh.
Last March it wiped out a trio of IRA terrorists in Gibraltar. And in August it reportedly killed three IRA men after luring them into a trap in County Tyrone.
The SAS is said to operate mostly in Ulster's border areas, specializing in surveillance operations and sudden, violent ambushes. There are thought to be about 100 SAS men in Ulster.
While the conservative tabloid press lauds the SAS as a superhuman elite, the socialist press accuses them of ``cowardly back-shooting murder.''
Duncan Campbell of the left-wing New Statesman magazine, who has written extensively on the SAS, says he was appalled when troopers killed Daniel McCann, Mairead Farrell, and Sean Savage in Gibraltar earlier this year. ``It was really the first time that the British state had crossed into using the tactics of South American death squads,'' he says.
According to James Adams, when SAS men fire, they shoot to kill. But he insists that the regiment has no shoot-to-kill policy, if that means a deliberate policy of assassinating IRA terrorists. ``If the IRA believe there is a shoot-to-kill policy, then we would have shot the whole lot of them and there'd be nobody out there saying: `There is a shoot-to-kill policy.' We know who they all are. We follow a lot of them all the time, so we would have taken them all out years ago.''
The British government says all British troops operate within the law in Ulster. The IRA ridicules such assertions, particularly where the SAS is concerned.
For the SAS, it seems, only the foe has changed. Where the regiment once fought Sten gun-armed Malayan communists and Kalashnikov-equipped Omani insurgents, it's now battling members of the IRA with Armalites and Semtex explosive.
But Northern Ireland isn't Malaya or Oman, and SAS operations likely will come under exceptionally close scrutiny in the months ahead as Ulster braces for the 20th year of its agony.