The Clinton Administration on Thursday summoned Bosnian and Croatian leaders to discuss creation of a joint Muslim-Croatian state covering half of Bosnia-Herzegovina--an idea that U.S. officials consider a key building block for peace in the divided republic.
If the talks succeed, the United States would work to promote a formal partition of Bosnia into two federated states, one shared by Muslims and Bosnian Croats and the other dominated by Bosnian Serbs, officials said.
"We believe that there . . . is a good chance that we could make this happen," a senior State Department official told reporters.
The decision to bring the sputtering Bosnian peace talks to Washington marks the first time that the United States has injected itself directly into the Bosnian war as the sole mediator in negotiations--and stakes the Administration's prestige more directly than ever before on a successful outcome.
The increased U.S. role also reflects American officials' view that a peace agreement may slowly be coming into reach, as well as a new willingness by the Administration to promote solutions that it once rejected--including the country's partition.
Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, who has been visiting Washington on behalf of the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo, strongly endorsed the U.S. approach.
"I must say the Administration is being helpful, especially now that they are all focusing on the possibility of this rapprochement with the Croats," he said. "We believe that to be the first step toward peace in Bosnia."
Bosnia's Muslims and Roman Catholic Croats initially were allies in the country's civil war, fighting the Eastern Orthodox Bosnian Serbs and military forces of the Serbian-led rump Yugoslavia. But in the last year, Muslims and Croats fell to fighting each other over the Bosnian territory that they still held.
If the Muslims and Croats join together, the resulting state will be much more viable than separate ministates would be, State Department officials said.
The new republic would be designed to have a strong central government but also to permit considerable autonomy for local areas, or "cantons," in part to protect the rights of the Croatian minority, they said.
A joint Muslim-Croatian republic could also form an economic confederation with the neighboring republic of Croatia, further improving the new state's chances of success, the officials said.
That part of the plan is intended to acknowledge the desire of many Bosnian Croats for union with Croatia, without depriving the Bosnian Muslims of the independent state they want.
At the same time, U.S. officials appear increasingly resigned to the prospect of a separate Bosnian Serb state that would seek to join Serbia soon after partition.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher decided to summon the Muslims and Croats to Washington after the Bosnian Croats abruptly pulled out of a similar deal that was negotiated in Europe last week.
To get the Bosnian Croats back to the table, U.S. diplomats told them--and their backers in Croatia--that the Administration would support a new Bosnian-Croatian confederation with significant economic aid, but only if they cooperated in the negotiations.
At the same time, U.S. officials warned Croatia that it risked U.S. displeasure--and even the possibility of economic sanctions--if it blocked a negotiated settlement.
Officials said the talks probably will begin on Sunday at the State Department, and will be conducted by Charles E. Redman, the U.S. special envoy for Bosnia.
Expected to attend are Silajdzic, for the Muslim-led Bosnian government; Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic, for Croatia, and Kresmir Zubak, a leader of the Bosnian Croats.
Christopher will meet individually with the leaders of the three delegations but is unlikely to attend the talks himself, one official said.
Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who sent thousands of troops into Bosnia to fight the Muslims, endorsed the idea of a confederation on Thursday.
"The thing would be to have a sort of federation of Croats and Muslims (in Bosnia) which would be in a confederation with Croatia. It would be in our interest," Tudjman said in a speech to the central committee of his nationalist party.
Christopher, speaking to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, repeated the Administration's promise to send U.S. peacekeeping troops to enforce an agreement if the conditions are right.
"If it's a viable agreement, if it puts an end to the fighting, the Administration would make a very strong case to the Congress and to the American people that that was a worthy subject of peacekeeping," he said.