CHALATENANGO, EL SALVADOR -- When the attack came, about 3 a.m. last Tuesday, the first blast jarred the Navaretes awake. After the second, 3-year-old Grecia Yvonne started to cry, and then to scream. She did not stop until late the following afternoon.

For 13 hours, guerrillas of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) attacked the military base on this tidy town's plaza, about two blocks from the Navaretes' home. They also blew open the family's door, occupied their tumbledown row house for the duration of the attack and destroyed most of their possessions.

It was the misfortune of the Navaretes -- and of thousands of other civilians around this sad country of 5.5 million people -- that they happened to live too close to one of the targets chosen by the rebels in their latest military offensive.

In the aftermath of the FMLN attack on Chalatenango, 45 miles north of the capital, San Salvador, the main legacy is the anguish of innocent civilians.

"War is war, we understand that," said Yvonne Navarete, 26, who lives with her daughter and mother in the house overlooking a playground. "But why us? Why'd they come into our house? The conflict is between them -- not us."

The FMLN's announced intention was to "punish" the Salvadoran armed forces for their human-rights record and to jar loose concessions from the government in stalled peace talks. Few observers suggest that the guerrillas accomplished those goals in striking at military or strategic targets in half of the 14 provinces.

In addition to scores of civilian casualties, the attacks left about 40 of the army's 55,000 troops dead and perhaps 200 injured. As for the peace talks, most analysts agree that the government may now become less likely to bend.

The guerrillas "say it will contribute to the negotiations," Ruben Zamora, a leftist politician who has backed the guerrillas in the past, said in an interview. "I have my doubts."

Rather, by launching major attacks on targets in populated areas, the FMLN's chief accomplishment may be to embitter many of the humble people on whose behalf the rebels say they have fought a civil war for 11 years.

That may help to explain why, despite brutalities of the armed forces and gross inequities of Salvadoran society, the guerrillas have been unable to expand their popularity significantly beyond a committed core of supporters who have backed them for years.

"Frankly, what they've done is stupid," said a European diplomat. "They are not the Vietcong, but that's what they're trying to be."

The guerrillas' action came just as they had scored a number of diplomatic and political victories.

Last month, the U.S. Congress cut military aid to the armed forces by $42.5 million -- half the amount sought by President Bush. The vote was a sharp defeat for the Salvadoran government and, according to President Aldredo Cristiani, will begin to pinch the armed forces by next summer.

The army continues to suffer political fallout from the killing of six prominent Jesuits at the height of a major rebel offensive a year ago. A colonel and seven other soldiers have been arrested in the killings, which served as strong motivation in Congress's decision to cut military aid.

Moreover, a secret new peace plan proposed a few weeks ago by United Nations mediator Alvaro de Soto reportedly is extremely favorable to the rebels. It calls for a national commission, which could include representatives nominated by the guerrillas and the Roman Catholic Church, to weed out human-rights abusers from the armed forces' officer corps.

Sources say that while the armed forces have not actually rejected the proposal, they are balking at the idea of either the FMLN or the church -- which many officers see as being in league with the rebels -- having a say in the military's affairs. Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, the defense minister, says that he is willing to accept a "purification" of the officer corps -- but only if it is what he calls a "self-purification."

The U.N. proposal is said to undercut further the military's position by abolishing two of the country's three police forces, all of which currently come under the control of the armed forces. The third would be incorporated into a single national police force under the jurisdiction of a civilian ministry.

"Everywhere you look, the army is getting kicked in the pants," said a diplomat. "But by staging a new offensive, the guerrillas hand them a PR and political gift on a silver platter. It relieves the pressure on the army, because everyone starts to remember what a bunch of thugs the FMLN are."

In Chalatenango, a provincial capital of about 28,000 people, these political thrusts and parries don't count for much. Even after more than a decade of war, many people have only the foggiest notion of what the FMLN says it is fighting for -- justice, human rights, land reform and the reform of the armed forces.

Indeed, many say they assume the war is about power, which the rebels insist is not so.

The Navaretes are not much interested in the guerrillas' politics. What they want to know is how they will ever manage to afford a large color television like the one they say the guerrillas destroyed when they used the family living room as a firebase.

The television cost them about $750. They saved their money for several years to buy it, and it was turned on most of the time.

The family -- grandmother Maria Antonia, 68, daughter Yvonne and her daughter Grecia Yvonne -- lives on Yvonne's $125 monthly salary as a schoolteacher. It is barely enough to put food on the table -- certainly not enough to buy a new television.

The walls of their living room, like the exterior walls of their house, are pockmarked with bullet holes. Tap the plaster and dried mud comes crumbling out of the holes. There are bullet holes in the cedar vanity, in the medicine cabinet and in the clothes that hung in a closet. Sunlight pierces the gloom of the living room through a dozen bullet holes in the metal front door.

"We're just happy the roof didn't fall in on us," said Maria Antonia, struggling against tears. "We were completely defenseless."