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Aid Vote Commits U.S. to Contras’ War in Nicaragua : Fate of American Policy Now Rests With Rebels

Times Staff Writer

With the House’s approval of $100 million in aid for Nicaraguan rebels, the United States has formally committed itself for the first time to the contras’ war against the Managua regime.

As a result, both Administration officials and their Democratic opponents said Thursday, the success of American policy in Central America now rests, more than ever before, on the rebels themselves and their uncertain ability to mount a serious military challenge to the Sandinista regime.

“Congress has decided now that it is a national policy to support the resistance, and we will,” said Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. “They’re there to stay.”

Abrams said he expects the contras to put enough military pressure on Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega to force him to concede to their demands for a new regime.

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“At a certain point down the road, he’s going to have to realize it’s negotiate or be thrown out by the people of Nicaragua. . . . We’re not talking about a lengthy period of years,” Abrams said.

But other senior officials, speaking on condition that they not be identified, said prospects of victory are not nearly so certain. They said the 12 months after the aid is released will be a critical test for both the Administration and the contras.

“Now the onus is on the Administration to get these guys to perform,” one State Department official said. “We’re about to find out how serious the contras really are.”

Victories Promised

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“Everybody’s been saying that the contras can’t win; we’d argue that they’ve never had the wherewithal,” said another. “But if they can’t do it with this, then maybe we will have to look at whether they have any real chance.”

The rebel leaders, in a jubilant, back-slapping news conference here, promised great victories as soon as the money and weaponry arrive.

“We will now be more effective in our political struggle,” said Alfonso Robelo, a member of the three-man leadership of the contra coalition, the United Nicaraguan Opposition. “We can anticipate popular insurrection, massive defections from the Sandinistas, massive enrollment (in the contra army) and rebellions from the regional armies of the Sandinistas.”

“There will be a more aggressive military strategy, because we want to show that the Sandinistas can be defeated,” Robelo said. He said the military objective would not be to topple the regime outright, but to produce “cracks in the Sandinista structure.”

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The contras’ critics, on the other hand, point out that the rebels consistently failed to mount a serious military effort when they were financed covertly by the CIA from 1981 until 1984 and that they failed again during the last two lean years when they enjoyed no U.S. military aid.

“There is no one who believes the contras are an effective force or can become an effective force to bring down the government of Nicaragua,” charged Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), a leading opponent of the aid program.

“The contras have never proven themselves as a military force,” said Robert Leiken, a Central America expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a supporter of aid to the rebels whom President Reagan quoted as an authority in his speech this week.

‘Won’t Be Sufficient’

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“Until they prove themselves, the pressure won’t be sufficient,” Leiken said.

Robelo and eight other contra leaders gathered in Washington said that they also plan a major political effort to end their long-running internal feuds, reform their military command structure and establish themselves as a virtual government-in-exile.

They said that they plan to convene a consultative assembly with members from seven political parties, business and labor groups and Miskito Indian organizations, probably to meet in Costa Rica.

The contras’ leading moderate, Arturo Cruz, said that the assembly would discuss the situation with the unelected membership of the rebel coalition, “and we will abide by whatever they decide.”

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‘Administration Has Moved’

The idea of pushing for reform in the contras organizations has won broad support in Congress in the wake of charges of corruption, military incompetence and political infighting. The bill approved on Wednesday establishes a five-member congressional commission to oversee the aid program, monitor attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement in Nicaragua “and implement measures for reform, human rights, democracy, civilian leadership and accountability for U.S. assistance.”

Administration officials cited that provision, and the fact that the Administration was forced to accept it, as evidence that a bipartisan consensus is slowly growing around aid to the contras as long as abuses can be eliminated.

“There are signs that we may be moving toward a bipartisan mood, if not a bipartisan policy,” said Leiken. “The Administration has moved a long way on that, too.”

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But Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), one of the architects of the compromise bills that were rejected, said he believes the Administration’s 12-vote margin on Wednesday’s vote belies any solid consensus.

“If they come back to me next February and say they need more money for artillery, you’ve got to show me your results,” McCurdy said.

He added that the Democrats expect to win 10 more House seats in November’s election, which could shift the balance--especially in the event of a major blunder such as the CIA’s mining of Nicaraguan harbors that led to the House cutoff of aid in 1984.

Other basic issues remained unresolved by Wednesday’s vote. The question of who will run the new aid program, which Congress once debated hotly, was left open.

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‘Haven’t Decided How’

“The alternatives are the Defense Department, the CIA and the State Department, or some combination of them,” a senior State Department official said. “But we genuinely haven’t decided how we want to do it.”

Nor would the Administration or the contras divulge what they hope to buy with the $70 million that will be available for military purchases, beyond the general categories of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, anti-tank grenade launchers and machine guns.

Instead, they said that the vote alone--the fact that a majority of Congress now clearly favors some form of military backing for the rebels--should send a basic message of U.S. resolve to remove the Sandinistas from power.

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“This means . . . (that) there is a broadened consensus to do more and more and more for the resistance forces,” Abrams said. “And we’ll give them more and more, and that will enable them--with the support of the people of Nicaragua--to do better and better.”

“This is a message--to us, the contras inside Nicaragua--that the United States, the leader of the free world, is not abandoning us in our struggle for freedom and democracy,” Robelo said. “This is a challenge, and we are going to take it, and we are going to show results.”


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