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Aiding Duarte

After months of uncertainty, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives seems to have decided on its policy toward administration requests for aid to El Salvador. It is: to provide much of what is sought this year - but not all, in order to continue to have leverage over the Salvadorean government. Then to provide most of what is asked for next year.

This decision has much merit. In part it is based on growing confidence of American legislators in the new Salvadorean President, Jose Napoleon Duarte.

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But in part it is also based on old-fashioned politics, with lawmakers of both parties not wanting to take a stance that will be unpopular with the voters in their home districts. Many Democrats are particularly concerned that unless they now indicate substantial financial support for the Duarte regime in the next fiscal year, President Reagan may run against Congress in the November election on this issue, as on others, accusing it of softness on saving El Salvador from going communist.

Yet there are limits to this concern. The House is expected to reject the administration request for an additional $116 million in military aid, tentatively scheduled for a vote today. The House majority considers that the $ 126 million in military assistance and the $160 million in economic help already approved this year are sufficient to enable Mr. Duarte to hold back the communist-led insurgency and continue economic and military reforms.

Providing the additional sum at this time, many in Congress believe, would only reduce American leverage - and thus Duarte's - with the rightist Salvadorean military. This view has much to recommend it.

Duarte himself is in the midst of a considerable honeymoon period with the US Congress, on which he has made an excellent impression during his two visits to Washington. He similarly impressed European leaders during a recent European trip. American legislators also believe he has made a good start in rebuilding his nation's economy, and that he is moving as quickly as feasible to root out corruption in the Salvadorean military and to begin to exert civilian control over it.

The situation is different at home. The Salvadorean government and military remain under considerable pressure from guerrillas, who this week launched a major attack against civil guards in rural western El Salvador, killing 66 people.

In his efforts to harness his military, the Salvadorean President is aided both by American pressure and by the spotlight that international media attention provides. Both help deter those rightist elements of the Salvadorean military that might have notions of trying to overthrow Duarte at this time.

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