WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration struggled yesterday to persuade United Nations peacekeepers to remain in Bosnia, fearing that any operation to withdraw them would cost the lives of American troops committed to help.
President Clinton has promised that the United States will deploy up to 25,000 troops as part of any NATO force that would withdraw the U.N. peacekeepers.
While NATO would not take sides, the withdrawal operation could bring U.S. troops into ground conflict with Bosnian combatants for the first time in the three-year war and inflict American casualties, Pentagon planners say. It could also lead to a new humanitarian catastrophe, the State Department warned yesterday.
With this prospect, U.S. officials urged European allies yesterday to maintain the U.N. force in Bosnia, even if it cannot fulfill its mandate of protecting Muslim civilians in "safe areas" and delivering food and medical aid.
Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said Mr. Clinton "believes it is important to continue the mission and desirable, because it . . . helps alleviate the suffering of the civilian population by keeping many of them alive through the provision of humanitarian relief."
Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman, said: "It is far preferable for us to continue along current lines, however imperfect or frustrating it may be," than taking any alternate course. He urged that the peacekeeping force be strengthened.
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have braced themselves for a decision later this summer by the key U.N. force contributors -- Britain, France and the Netherlands -- whether to keep the United Nations peacekeeping operation in Bosnia or to ask NATO to help withdraw it.
The decision would turn on whether a new rapid-reaction force being assembled by the three countries can protect the peacekeepers from Bosnian Serb attacks and help them do their jobs. To be completed by the onset of winter, when large-scale movement in Bosnia would become difficult, the withdrawal would have to start in early fall, U.S. officials said.
But the inability of the U.N. force and of NATO to prevent the Bosnian Serbs' takeover of the declared "safe area" of Srebrenica this week was so devastating to the mission it could compel an earlier U.N. withdrawal, diplomats say.
France offers troops
While President Jacques Chirac of France called Tuesday for the United Nations to reclaim Srebrenica and offered French troops to help in that task, the idea was dismissed as unfeasible by a top U.N. official and was greeted skeptically yesterday by Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind of Britain.
"It is very important not to create expectations that can't be delivered," Mr. Rifkind said in a BBC interview.
Earlier, he told the British Parliament that the U.N. peacekeeping force "is not prepared to fight a war."
"Withdrawal must remain an option," he added.
The Dutch government came under political pressure to withdraw after Serbian forces yesterday began holding its troops as hostages near Srebrenica.
"It's a turning point," Lt. Paul Makken of the Royal Dutch Air Force's Department of International Policy said yesterday.
"At the beginning, there were enthusiasm and idealism, knowing that we are making a contribution. "But the majority of Dutch would favor a pullout now."
Talk of withdrawal at U.N.
At the U.N. headquarters in New York "there is more talk of [withdrawal] now than there has been because of Srebrenica," a Western diplomat said. "It's a fairly depressing picture."
On Capitol Hill, the momentum for a U.N. withdrawal appears to be rising. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who is campaigning for president, is reported to have lined up a large majority behind a bill that would authorize a pullout of peacekeepers and then lift the arms embargo imposed on the Bosnian Muslims.
Aides of the Kansas Republican say the long-delayed bill will be brought to a vote next week.
A withdrawal would confront the U.S. military and its NATO allies with delicate choices.
Early on, they would have to decide whether to risk enraging the Bosnian Serbs by disarming the anti-aircraft missile batteries that threaten NATO aircraft, according to Albert Wohlstetter, a former outside adviser to the Pentagon in several administrations.
Once a withdrawal is completed, the United States would face a drastically altered security situation in the Balkans, with a likely escalation of fighting between Muslims and Serbs and perhaps a new offensive by Croatia against the Serbs.
If the Bosnian Muslims cannot gain ground on the battlefield against the Serbs, Mr. Clinton would likely come under heavy pressure from their supporters in Congress to supply them with heavy weapons and training, both of which they now lack because of the arms embargo.
That could compound the president's problems in 1996 -- an election year.
The United States already has stationed several hundred troops in neighboring Macedonia to prevent a spillover of the conflict, and would have to weigh new steps to contain the war.
Officials yesterday reiterated Mr. Clinton's pledge to help with the withdrawal, despite the risks. An abandonment of this promise would deal a blow to an already strained Atlantic alliance.
"I think there's very broad agreement that in the event UNPROFOR does decide to come out, that President Clinton's commitment to help get UNPROFOR out safely is one that ought to be followed through on," Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who is a leading congressional figure in foreign affairs, said of the U.N. Protection Force.