Salvadorans Ambushed By Memories in Iraq

Salvadorans arrived in Iraq in August as part of a rotation of 380 soldiers.
Salvadorans arrived in Iraq in August as part of a rotation of 380 soldiers. (By Wilfredo Salamanca -- El Diario De Hoy)
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 25, 2006

SAN SALVADOR -- The convoy of Salvadoran troops was rumbling along a highway in southern Iraq when a bomb exploded under the first Humvee, slicing the driver's neck with shrapnel. As a medic scrambled to reach him, insurgents hiding nearby unleashed a torrent of small-arms fire.

It was the soldiers' first taste of combat in Iraq. But for those who had fought in El Salvador's fierce civil war as teenagers two decades earlier, the skirmish near Diwaniyah last September felt uncomfortably familiar.

Once again, they were crouching for cover against the deafening rat-a-tat-tat of AK-47 assault rifles. Once again, they were firing back with weapons and ammunition supplied by the U.S. government.

"Suddenly all these memories of the civil war came back to me," recalled Gustavo, a 35-year-old sergeant who returned to his village in northern El Salvador last month. Like other soldiers interviewed, he asked that his full name not be published because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "It was strange," he said. "I started remembering all these ambushes and battles I hadn't thought about in so long."

The Salvadoran government's willingness to keep sending troops to Iraq -- after three other Latin American countries pulled out their forces -- underscores the unusually strong political and economic bonds, as well as the unique military relationship, forged in the past two decades between this tiny country and the United States. More than 1 million Salvadorans now live in the United States, including 125,000 in the Washington region, census figures show. The Salvadoran Embassy estimates the number in the region at 500,000.

The Salvadoran and U.S. militaries have largely reversed their roles in the two conflicts. In El Salvador, Salvadoran soldiers did nearly all the fighting against leftist guerrillas, while dozens of U.S. military advisers trained, armed and often secretly directed them as part of a broader policy to prevent any more Central American nations from succumbing to the leftist revolution that swept Nicaragua in 1979.

In Iraq, the roughly 380 Salvadoran troops are a tiny presence compared with the 133,000 U.S. troops there. Perhaps their greatest contribution is to help preserve the diminishing "coalition of the willing" that President Bush assembled in 2003. Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic originally sent troops but have since withdrawn.

One reason El Salvador has agreed to stay, according to analysts, is that its three most recent elected presidents have been members of the rightist ARENA party, which has close ties with the Bush administration and shares its commitment to a proposed regional free-trade agreement.

Salvadoran workers in the United States send home $2.8 billion annually, and the current Salvadoran president, Elias Antonio Saca, has been lobbying the U.S. government to liberalize immigration laws so more can enter legally. He has also requested repeated extensions of the temporary legal status that the United States granted to more than 220,000 illegal Salvadoran immigrants in 2001 after earthquakes devastated El Salvador.

Last month, the Bush administration announced the latest extension of the controversial program, two weeks after Saca agreed to send a sixth contingent of troops to Iraq. So far, more than 2,300 Salvadorans have served there, and two have been killed.

"ARENA has evolved considerably, but the continuity is still there," noted Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research group. Although neither government has acknowledged a link to El Salvador's Iraq policy, "it certainly doesn't hurt," he observed.

Some Salvadorans feel it is unfair to send the troops to Iraq. One is Herminia Ramos, whose son Natividad died there in 2004.

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