WASHINGTON -- Seizing the political initiative, President Clinton said yesterday that he will ask Congress for "an expression of support" for sending U.S. troops to Bosnia.
In doing so, the president responded to a key Capitol Hill demand that he seek congressional approval of the mission, but also opened up the possibility that he may be denied the support he clearly wants from lawmakers.
In a letter to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, Mr. Clinton gave no indication that a negative congressional vote would keep him from dispatching the U.S. peacekeeping force.
The letter marked the first time the president has agreed to seek the support of lawmakers for his commitment of as many as 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia once a settlement is reached between the warring parties.
Previously, he simply has said he would "encourage" and "welcome" congressional support, but has stopped short of saying he would request it.
NATO's plan calls for the deployment of allied peacekeepers within days of a peace settlement being reached. Mr. Clinton did not say if he would seek congressional support before or after the deployment, but he said it would be premature to take any action before peace talks open in Dayton, Ohio, at the end of the month.
"I hope as the peace talks commence we can continue the process begun in congressional hearings to brief and consult with Congress so that we secure the widest support possible for peace," he told Senator Byrd.
Welcoming Mr. Clinton's move, Senator Byrd, who is undecided on whether to support the mission, agreed the deployment should be debated after a peace settlement was reached.
"It would be most unfortunate if the peace process were to be derailed by premature action here as to what we would or would not do in the event of an agreement," said the senator.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, whose members earlier this week voiced a chorus of demands for Mr. Clinton to seek approval, withheld comment on Mr. Clinton's letter.
Under the 1973 War Powers Act, Mr. Clinton must inform Congress within 48 hours of deploying troops overseas into situations of "imminent hostilities" and withdraw them within 60 days unless Congress approves the mission.
President Bush deployed U.S. forces to the Mideast without seeking congressional approval after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The following January, however, prior to the commencement of hostilities against Iraq, he asked for and received congressional support.
L In other developments yesterday, according to wire services:
* French President Jacques Chirac agreed with his visiting Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin that Russia -- like France, Britain and the United States -- should have a peacekeeping zone in the former Yugoslavia, his spokeswoman said.
Mr. Yeltsin has balked at Russian troops being put under NATO command in any international Bosnian force. * The U.N. Security Council condemned Croatia and the Bosnian Serbs for a litany of human rights abuses that it said constituted gross violations of international law.
The council heard a report from human rights teams detailing at least 650 cases of killings, armed robbery and lootings after the Croatian army's lighting strike in August against Serbs in the Krajina region.
It also said it was shocked by reports of Bosnian Serbs carrying out killings and forced expulsions in brutal conditions around Banja Luka in northern Bosnia.
It said conditions had worsened drastically, with unconfirmed reports of mass killings, since the arrival recently of forces from former Yugoslavia loyal to notorious paramilitary Serb leader Zeljko "Arkan" Raznjatovic.
Croatia's human rights record has --ed its hopes of moving toward membership of the European Union ahead of other former Yugoslav republics, diplomats said.
* Hopes grew that a cease-fire holding in most of Bosnia would also take root in the volatile northwest after Bosnian Serb army representatives met their Bosnian Croat and government counterparts.
Serbs met representatives of the mainly Muslim government forces and agreed to comply with the truce accord and to define their confrontation line. Envoys also agreed to set up a telephone hot line between the rival commanders and to meet every day at noon.
The truce continued to hold up well elsewhere in Bosnia, U.N. military spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Vernon said.
* A bomb exploded in an car just after it had forced its way into the police headquarters parking lot in the Croatian port city of Rijeka.
One of the car's occupants was killed and the other injured, suggesting the bomb detonated prematurely. A policeman who tried to stop the intruders was seriously injured and 27 other people were slightly hurt.
Interior Minister Ivan Jarnjak said drug crime with Italian connections or Serbs opposed to Croatia might have been involved.