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U.S. Reported Willing to Put Troops in Bosnia : Peacekeeping: Clinton would decide on deployment only after a peace agreement is reached, officials say. Initiative signals a major policy shift.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Clinton Administration has decided to signal that it is willing to commit U.S. military forces--potentially including ground troops--to peacekeeping duty in Bosnia-Herzegovina if a peace agreement can be reached among the warring factions there, a senior official said Tuesday.

The conditional offer of U.S. troops, which will be presented as part of a full-scale diplomatic initiative toward the former Yugoslav federation, would be a major shift for President Clinton, who said during his presidential campaign that he was not considering the use of ground troops there.

Officials were careful to emphasize, however, that the Administration is not considering the ground forces to try to bring an end to the hostilities. Rather, they said, the decision to deploy troops would be made only if a peace agreement was concluded and then only as part of a multinational force.

Clinton approved the initiative Tuesday after mulling it over during the weekend, one official said. Secretary of State Warren Christopher plans to announce the U.S. initiative this afternoon, he said.

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The Administration’s new willingness to discuss the deployment of ground troops appeared likely to touch off a major national debate. Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other military officers have warned that they view Bosnia as a quagmire that they do not want to enter.

And while some members of Congress have been vocal in demanding a more active U.S. role in bringing peace to the former Yugoslav federation, others are certain to criticize the idea of sending troops now that the Administration has acknowledged the possibility.

“All options are on the table,” said an official who has been directly involved in preparing the initiative for Yugoslavia.

“One of the ways we might get the parties (in Bosnia) to agree to a plan is if we agree to enforce it,” he said. “Enforcement can imply a lot of different things, including the use of military assets.”

Officials added that the United States may also be willing to use air power or other forms of military force, in addition to ground troops, if necessary to enforce a peace agreement.

“We’re not specifically committing to the use of ground troops,” the senior official said. “We’re not ruling anything out, is how we’d rather say it.”

One reason for signaling the new U.S. willingness to offer troops, he said, is that the Administration hopes to enlist the support of allies in a multinational peacekeeping effort. Britain and France, which already have troops in Bosnia on humanitarian missions, would be unlikely to support a U.S. diplomatic initiative if the Administration continued to rule out use of American troops, diplomats said.

At the same time, the Administration hopes that its new willingness to consider the use of force will quiet the criticism from some members of Congress who have charged Clinton with failing to act decisively in Bosnia.

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Christopher said during his Senate confirmation hearing last month that Clinton had ruled out the use of American ground forces in Bosnia. “Ground troops are not contemplated--not within the current range of options,” Christopher said at the time.

The senior official who spoke Tuesday said the Administration’s new position on U.S. forces represents “a dramatic change from the previous Administration. It indicates seriousness of purpose.”

The George Bush Administration argued that leadership in arranging any peace settlement in the Balkans should come from Europe, and it largely avoided direct involvement in the issue until its last year in office. At that point, the United States pressed for tougher sanctions against Serbia but did not become actively involved in the negotiations pursued by former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, representing the United Nations, and former British Foreign Secretary Lord Owen, representing the European Community.

Other components of the Clinton Administration initiative, the official said, include a new set of economic sanctions against Serbia, the neighboring republic that supports ethnic Serb militias in Bosnia, and the appointment of a U.S. special envoy to start new negotiations among the republic’s Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim factions.

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“The policy will have as its focus an active engagement by the United States to try to seek a peace agreement to which all parties can agree,” he said. “This is a significant engagement by the United States in seeking peace.”

The initiative is intended to “improve” the peace plan proposed by Vance and Owen, officials said, adding that they hope the pair will continue working toward a settlement.

But in fact, the effort appears more likely to replace Vance and Owen with a U.S.-led effort that will place responsibility for failure or success squarely in the Administration’s lap.

Clinton had criticized the Vance-Owen plan, which would divide Bosnia into 10 largely autonomous cantons, as unworkable and unfair to the Muslims.

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An aide to Vance and Owen predicted, however, that the U.S. effort “would probably come out pretty much the same way.”

Many of the details of the Clinton Administration initiative were still being worked out, officials said. For example, one official said, as of Tuesday afternoon no special envoy had been chosen. And the details of what kind of economic sanctions would be sought were still being considered, another said.


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