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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 January, 2005, 11:31 GMT
'Salvador Option' mooted for Iraq
Tom Gibb
By Tom Gibb
BBC, South America

With no end to the Iraq conflict in sight, some US military strategists have been considering tactics used during the civil war in El Salvador, a brutal and bloody campaign that lasted for years.

FMLN guerrillas attack San Salvador
More than 70,000 people died in the 12-year war
The US colonel in charge at the close of El Salvador's civil war was a tall man with a shaven head, which, as a colleague put it, "looked as if it would repel cannonballs".

I remember him commenting on how he had been glad to serve in El Salvador because he believed the United States had corrected the mistakes of Vietnam, learning at last the formula to defeat future insurgencies.

This, he said, required pouring in resources to build up the local army as a shield against hostile guerrillas behind which democracy-building could work its magic.

He was, he said, going to write it all up in case of another such war.

So it has been with little surprise that I have read articles coming out of Washington in recent weeks, with US officials talking about a "Salvador Option" in Iraq, not only for democracy-building, but also for a more aggressive campaign to eliminate Iraqi insurgents and their supporters.

Brutal dictatorships

El Salvador was the last long counter-insurgency war fought by the United States.

Former US President Ronald Reagan
Determined to halt the spread of communism, the US took action
It is one of a collection of small republics in the US backyard which, during the Cold War, Washington considered too strategically important to fall to communism.

For decades the US propped up brutal dictatorships. But repression created fertile ground for Marxist guerrillas.

So in the 1980s, the US belatedly switched to democracy-building to stop the revolutions sweeping the region.

President Reagan promised to draw the line against further communist expansion in El Salvador.

There followed a bloody 12-year stalemate between the US-funded and organised Salvadoran army, and Cuban-backed guerrillas.

Between one and two percent of the population - more than 70,000 people - died.

Terror tactics

I still find it extraordinary that US officials like the colonel, saw this as a success.

A memorial for the victims of El Salvador's civil war
The suffering the Salvadoran people experienced is still felt today
The shield which stopped a guerrilla victory in El Salvador was in reality a reign of terror.

Tens of thousands of those killed in the war were rebel sympathisers, tortured and murdered by the security forces.

It was a well-organised, dirty war in which the CIA was heavily involved.

Horrendously mutilated corpses - sometimes decapitated - were left in full public view.

Using fear, the policy succeeded in denying the rebels open civilian support.

Some in the Pentagon have now been mooting the idea of training Iraqi hit squads to target insurgents and their sympathisers to quash open civilian support for them.

But for this to work would mean out-terrorising the Iraqi rebels, a difficult task indeed.

Nor is success for a Salvador-style death squad democracy guaranteed.

Horrific memories

Constituent assembly elections, like those taking place in Iraq, were held in 1982.

A soldier fires a gun during an attack on San Salvador
But the war continued for another decade with the rebels rebuilding their strength.

In November 1989, they launched an all-out offensive to win, taking over suburbs of the capital for 10 days.

Fearing defeat, the US-backed army set out to kill not only guerrillas but also those they viewed as sympathisers.

Of the memories of death and mutilation I witnessed in El Salvador, the sight of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her 16-year-old daughter with their brains blown across the neatly cropped lawn of their house, is the one that still haunts the most.

They were among the country's leading intellectuals, and I knew them well.

They were murdered by an elite US-trained unit, part of an extermination list approved by the high command, a dirty war taken to the limit.

The failure of US strategy in El Salvador is perhaps measured by its inability in 12 years to capture or kill a single top guerrilla commander in a country only the size of Belgium.

In the end, years more bloodshed and a potentially humiliating US defeat were only prevented by the Soviet collapse, which pulled the rug from under the guerrillas' feet.

George Bush Snr called in the United Nations to mediate peace and sort out the mess.

It seems a strange model to choose now for Iraq.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 27 January, 2005, at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

El Salvador's suffering lingers on
09 Jul 04 |  Americas
El Salvador 'failed child victims'
30 Jul 03 |  Americas
US role in Salvador's brutal war
24 Mar 02 |  Americas
Timeline: El Salvador
31 Dec 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: El Salvador
16 Nov 04 |  Country profiles



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