FAR-REACHING military reforms long opposed by hard-line factions in the Salvadoran Armed Forces are central to a new confidential United Nation's peace plan to end this country's 11-year civil war. The UN blueprint has not been released publicly, but analysts and diplomats familiar with its contents say it is unlikely to get a nod from the military any time soon.
Echoing some demands of the Armed Forces' critics, the compromise proposal would reportedly establish an independent commission to investigate and dismiss military officers guilty of human rights abuses. It calls for disbanding the Armed Forces' intelligence branch and dismantling two of the country's three security forces.
One diplomat close to the peace process says, ``The rebels would do well to let the United Nations do their talking for them.''
But leftist guerrillas, far from maintaining a low profile, launched a four-day military blitz last Tuesday. Rebels attacked Army positions in half of the country's 14 provinces. At least 90 people died, including 38 government troops and 39 guerrillas, according to the Army.
Some political analysts interpret the drive as an effort to pressure the Army to agree to parts of the UN plan prior to talks slated for this week. In a switch from previous roles, government officials noted the strength of the ``major offensive,'' while guerrilla communiqu'es described the actions as ``limited military maneuvers.''
``We're giving a little demonstration to the Armed Forces and the government of our capacity to pressure ... to open the doors to serious and real negotiations,'' says rebel Commandant'e German Serrano.
These differing descriptions were given with one eye on the United States Congress. When lawmakers halved annual US military aid to El Salvador to $42.5 million in October, they stipulated the aid could be restored if guerrilla action ``threatens the survival'' of the government.
Despite the government's warnings, predictions that rebels were mounting a big military offensive on the order of last November's actions proved exaggerated. State Department officials stopped short of calling for a reinstatement of the aid.
``We're not sure what the rebels were trying to accomplish with this campaign, but we don't see how it can help the peace process,'' says a US Embassy official.
Government spokesman Francisco Altschul says the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) is divided on the utility of more attacks, but sees a chance to take advantage of perceived Army disunity.
``They sense now that there could be a division within the military, that the lack of military resources could weaken the capacity of the Armed Forces,'' Mr. Altschul says.
The FMLN itself is made up of five groups that continuously debate the merits of military action, analysts say. But such internal debate seems not to have caused any major divisions this time, they say.
And even as tensions heighten, neither guerrillas nor government have threatened to pull out of UN-mediated dialogue.
``The dialogue process now has its own dynamic - its own energy,'' says David Escobar Galindo, a leading member of the government's negotiating team.
But with the UN proposal unlikely to get immediate backing from the military, Salvadorans are bracing for more combat.
Behind a makeshift barricade on the outskirts of San Salvador, a 20-year-old rebel compared the guerrilla's military and political strategy to making chicken soup. ``First you have to throw lots of hot water over the bird to soften it up,'' says the law student-turned-combatant. ``Later you cook the stew.''