The Clinton Administration, seeking to assuage congressional fears that U.S. troops may become bogged down in Bosnia, is considering setting a one-year limit on their participation in the expected NATO peacekeeping mission there.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday that he plans to urge the White House to limit the U.S. deployment as the Administration prepares to make its case to Congress and the American people.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry called the proposal "sensible thinking by the secretary of defense."
Perry said that he has discussed the proposed time limit with European defense ministers and that they agreed it was a good idea.
But the suggestion was not greeted enthusiastically everywhere.
Some analysts questioned whether the limit would be realistic, particularly if NATO forces had not established a viable peace by the end of the period.
"What would they do," one critic asked, "pull out on the deadline even if the job hasn't been done?"
Perry's suggestion is the latest in a series of Administration steps to quell opposition to sending U.S. troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina to police a peace settlement, if one is signed.
Clinton launched a vigorous defense of his policy during a speech a week ago, and McCurry said Friday that the President may give a nationwide television speech to outline the reasons for any troop deployment.
Meanwhile, U.S. and NATO officials continued to disclose details about the international peacekeeping mission, which is expected to involve 50,000 to 60,000 troops.
The United States has pledged to send as many as 25,000 ground troops, but officials said the number is likely to be about 20,000, with support from specialized outfits such as civil affairs and military police.
The U.S. contingent would be built around the 1st Armored Division headquartered in Germany, with additions from other units in the United States, Pentagon officials said.
The Americans would be deployed primarily around Tuzla in eastern Bosnia; British and French troops would be responsible for enforcing the peace in other sections of the country, they said.
However, U.S. officials said troops of all countries would be spread throughout each area to avoid partitioning the country into a British zone, a French zone and a U.S. zone.
The allies still are negotiating with Russia over how many troops Moscow will provide for the peacekeeping operation and what duties they will be assigned.
Russia has said it wants to send 20,000 troops, but the United States is pressing for a much lower figure.
U.S. Gen. George A. Joulwan, supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe, has said the allies hope to separate the warring factions by establishing buffer zones and pressuring all sides to gradually withdraw from those areas.
U.S. officials say NATO forces will not become embroiled in secondary missions such as caring for refugees, rebuilding Bosnia's economy or disarming the populace. Those will be carried out by civilian officials under the auspices of the United Nations.
U.S. officials said they hope to deploy the NATO peacekeeping force quickly--by aircraft and train--in as little as 96 hours after a peace accord is signed. The contingent is expected to be heavily armed and fully able to defend itself.
The NATO-run operation would include aggressive rules of engagement that enable troops to fire whenever necessary to protect themselves. The troops would also have support from aircraft and ships.
Top Administration officials are slated to lay out additional details about the mission at hearings next week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Armed Services Committee.
Perry, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to be the chief witnesses.
But U.S. officials stress that the operation will not be finalized until after the warring factions agree on a peace accord. The combatants are to begin negotiations in the United States on Oct. 31.