WASHINGTON -- The leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia appeared on the verge of an agreement last night that would end the 3 1/2 -year Bosnian civil war, but U.S. mediators warned that final obstacles still could upset the deal.
After 19 days of talks at Wright-Patterson Air Force base outside Dayton, Ohio, U.S. officials imposed a deadline of 10 a.m. today for announcing the agreement that could redraw the map of the Balkans -- or for announcing a failure by the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia to find a way to bring a lasting end to the fighting. Serbia is negotiating on the behalf of Bosnia's Serbs.
If the talks are successful, the agreement probably would be announced by President Clinton at the White House, and the Balkan leaders would initial their formal agreement at a ceremony in Dayton.
"They are down now to the two or three make-or-break issues that will decide whether or not there is a peace settlement for Bosnia," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said last night.
In a sign that an agreement was within reach, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman last night left Zagreb, the Croatian capital, for Dayton, saying he expected to initial an agreement.
"It should be over tomorrow," Mr. Tudjman said. Otherwise, "I would probably not have been called to go there."
Mr. Clinton has committed the United States to sending about 20,000 troops into Bosnia to help enforce the agreement. They would be part of a 60,000-member NATO force empowered to separate the fighters and police borders.
Once the pact is initialed, the United States would start "prepositioning" some troops to handle communications and support functions. But the bulk of the troops would not be sent until the peace agreement actually is signed at a conference in Paris.
In the intervening period, Mr. Clinton is expected to seek a congressional vote of support for the U.S.-led peacekeeping operation. Given Congress' current mood, he is likely to fail and be faced with the prospect of sending U.S. troops to the Balkans without a formal endorsement.
Congress would not be able to stop the operation unless it mustered a veto-proof majority to cut off the necessary funding, which is considered unlikely.
Progress in Dayton seemed to accelerate after Secretary of State Warren Christopher imposed the deadline of today for reaching a decision. Mr. Christopher acted, an aide said, because all the parties were aware of what the issues were and simply had to "make a decision."
Mr. Christopher, who cut short a trip to Japan to return to the Dayton talks Friday, was reported last night to be closeted with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic as they worked through last-minute sticking points.
An agreement, if it is made to work, would end a conflict that has left an estimated 200,000 people dead, produced the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II and embarrassed two U.S. administrations, the United Nations, European Union and the NATO alliance.
Bosnia's Muslim-led government had been holding out for a U.S. commitment to arm and train its forces. U.S. officials have refused to promise that the United States would provide the training and equipment, but have assured the Bosnian government that its forces would get both, presumably from sympathetic Muslim states allied with the United States.
"We assured them that training and equipment would occur," a White House official said last night. Although the Clinton administration has publicly favored arming the Bosnian government troops, it has shifted emphasis to the idea of the Bosnian government's enemies reducing forces.
Under that approach, Bosnia's Serbs -- the most heavily armed of the Bosnian factions -- would have to give up substantial amounts of equipment.
European countries prefer a general disarmament, instead of providing more arms to one side of the conflict. But the Bosnian government, which has strong support in the U.S. Congress, makes the case that its troops are the least-equipped Balkan force and have been the most victimized.
In the negotiations, Bosnia's government has secured a large measure of control over the capital, Sarajevo, as well a corridor linking Sarajevo with the eastern enclave Gorazde.
The Serbs appear to have won a widening of a corridor linking Bosnian Serb lands in eastern Bosnia with Banja Luka to the east. They also would keep control of Srebrenica and Zepa, two formerly Muslim enclaves that were overrun by the Bosnian Serbs this summer. Thousands of Muslim men at Srebrenica are believed to have been slaughtered by the Bosnian Serbs.
Although a U.N. tribunal and the Bosnian government have sought to have the United States and the international community apply pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to surrender indicted war criminals, it appeared unlikely that the final agreement would require anything more specific than "cooperation" with the tribunal.