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U.S. Official Says Contras Can Win in 2 to 4 Years

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Times Staff Writer

Nicaraguan rebels can win their guerrilla war against the leftist Sandinista regime in two to four years if the United States continues to give them military aid, the Reagan Administration said Thursday.

Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, making the prediction in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he believes that the current Nicaraguan government is “wildly unpopular” and that the contras will quickly force the Sandinista army onto the defensive.

Abrams said that the Administration defines success for the contras not as “a straight-out military victory, as we won in World War II,” but as a “political victory like the Sandinistas had in 1979,” when the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza collapsed.

His prediction, however, was met with open skepticism by both Republicans and Democrats.

“How long will it take to win?” Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) asked.

“I hate to be pinned down in time, but I’ll give you an answer,” Abrams said. “We think it will take two to four years.”

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“I just think that is not at all realistic, absent a significant change in the amount of military aid,” Biden replied.

Several Republicans joined Biden in expressing doubts about whether the contras, who have been fighting for more than five years, are capable of exerting serious pressure on the Soviet-armed Sandinistas.

Internal Quarrels Cited

“How capable are the people we’re backing?” asked Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who noted that the contras’ political leadership is beset by internal quarrels.

“Is this a winning team?” asked Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), a conservative. “I don’t see any prospects. They don’t control a single village. I haven’t seen any victories.”

“There’s nothing in their military history . . . which gives cause for pessimism,” Abrams replied. “I think the tendency here in Washington is to underestimate what (the contras’) pressure can be.”

Within a year, he said, “you will see the resistance operating all over Nicaragua and really giving the Sandinistas a hard time.”

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Helms in Agreement

Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, one of the few Republicans to voice support for Abrams’ claims, said he agrees with the Administration’s warning that a defeat for the contras would lead to instability throughout Central America.

“And anybody who can’t see that needs to go to an eye doctor,” added Helms, the senior Republican member of the committee.

Democrats on the panel, saying they believe that the Administration has ignored opportunities to negotiate a peaceful solution with the Sandinistas, urged Abrams to open bilateral talks with the Nicaraguan regime--something the Administration has refused to do.

Pell Predicts Disaster

“In my judgment, the military strategy reresented by the contras is headed for disastrous results which offer the stark prospect of deepening U.S. military involvement,” said Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), the chairman of the committee.

“We’ve seen peace efforts in this country before,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), another liberal. “We know the difference between bona fide efforts to seek a political solution and efforts to avoid it.”

But Abrams said that any settlement that does not dislodge the Sandinistas from sole power in Managua “is a silly idea,” adding: “Without the contras, the Sandinistas have no incentive to negotiate for peace.”

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Abrams hinted that the Administration may request more than the $105 million included in next year’s proposed budget for aid to the rebels. Last spring, Congress approved $100 million in military and non-lethal aid for the current fiscal year.

“We might ask for more than that,” Abrams said. “It depends on how many men are under arms at that time and how things are going.”

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