WASHINGTON -- The leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia yesterday agreed to end Europe's worst conflict since World War II, setting the stage for a risky peacekeeping role for a NATO force led by 20,000 U.S. troops.
To be formally signed next month, the accord is meant to halt a 3 1/2 -year war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives, left 2 million people homeless and shocked the world with the genocidal horror of mass executions, systematic rapes and forced dislocation of civilians.
The Balkan leaders agreed to divide Bosnia into two separate and largely autonomous zones of roughly equal size. One will belong to a Muslim-Croatian federation, the other will be a Serb Republic, part of which will border Serbia.
Those two zones will share a democratically elected collective -- presidency and parliament that are to control foreign and monetary policy, trade and elections. The capital of Sarajevo is to remain united under the control of the Muslim-Croatian federation.
"The people of Bosnia finally have a chance to turn from the horror of war to the promise of peace," President Clinton said in announcing the agreement in the White House Rose Garden.
"This may not be a just peace," said Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, whose people have borne the worst suffering, "but it is more just than a continuation of war."
Mr. Izetbegovic joined Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, and Franjo Tudjman, president of Croatia, in initialing the agreement at a red-draped table at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio, where the Balkan delegations had been negotiating under U.S. stewardship for the last three weeks.
In the last days, U.S. officials both set and then abandoned a deadline -- and then fought to prevent the talks from collapsing over the issue of how territory would be divided.
As a reward for the agreement, Serbia can expect to see most economic sanctions lifted by the United Nations Security Council. The United Nations also is expected to lift, in phases, the arms embargo that has kept Bosnia's Muslims at a military disadvantage.
Although Europeans fear that lifting the arms embargo could trigger renewed fighting, U.S. officials hope it produces a military balance that will stabilize the country.
Said President Clinton: "Whatever their ethnic group, the overwhelming majority of Bosnia's citizens and the citizens of Croatia and Serbia want the same thing -- they want to stop the slaughter, they want to put an end to the violence and war, they want to give their children and their grandchildren the chance to lead a normal life."
Secretary of State Warren Christopher took over the negotiations this past weekend -- laboring at one point for 22 straight hours -- to bring the talks to a successful conclusion. "We've reached a day many believed would never come," Mr. Christopher said as he presided over the ceremony yesterday in Dayton.
The talks were set in motion by a combination of factors, one of the most important being a new determination and leadership by President Clinton since last summer.
After taking a back seat for three years to European efforts to end the conflict, Mr. Clinton persuaded European allies to allow NATO planes to bomb Serb targets. The Serbs, originally inspired by a dream of a "Greater Serbia," are widely seen as the worst aggressors.
Several factors combined to persuade the Serb leadership to negotiate: the NATO bombing, a resilient alliance of Muslims and Croats and the cumulative effects on Serbia of three years of international economic sanctions.
Mr. Milosevic, whose nationalist dream of a Greater Serbia is widely believed to have inspired Serb aggression against Muslims and Croats, began his return to international respectability at yesterday's ceremony in Dayton by being the first of the three presidents to shake the hand of Secretary of State Christopher.
The Serbian leader then was the first to speak. "Starting with the present day," he said, "the war in Bosnia should be left to the past."
New questions arise
A question that hovered over the ceremony was whether the leaders of the Bosnian Serb leadership will abide by the agreement. The two top Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Miladic, have been indicted for war crimes, and by the terms of the accord are now barred from holding government office.
A Bosnian Serb official who was allowed to join the talks in Dayton complained to a Serb television station that the deal was "a big mistake."
The agreement demands that the parties "cooperate" with the U.N. war crimes tribunal, but it doesn't require that suspects be arrested and turned over to the United Nations for trial.
The formal signing ceremony in Paris is to clear the way for the deployment of 60,000 NATO troops, who are supposed to supervise borders and keep Muslim, Serbian and Croatian fighters separated.
Mr. Clinton committed the United States to helping enforce a Bosnian peace agreement early in 1993. At the same time, he refused to involve U.S. ground troops while fighting continued.
He promised yesterday to use this period before the peace agreement is signed to try to persuade Congress to support the peacekeeping mission.
In recent weeks, administration officials have been raising the stakes for the United States in enforcing a Bosnia peace, linking it to the "vital" American interest of preserving European security.
In justifying the administration's former hands-off posture, officials said in the past that the Bosnian conflict was largely a humanitarian problem.
Mr. Clinton immediately began making the case for sending U.S. troops, saying that "without us, the hard-won peace would be lost."
"I ask all Americans to remember what we have seen and heard and read about for the last four years, and remember what the implications were not only for our consciences but for the prospect that that conflict could spread," the president said.
But Mr. Clinton faces a struggle to persuade lawmakers, and may be forced to deploy U.S. troops without an expression of congressional backing.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, said yesterday he viewed the deployment "skeptically but with an open mind," and said the House would hold hearings next week.
"I am not prepared to vote yes but I would discourage any member [of the House] from automatically voting no," Mr. Gingrich said.
But John McCain of Arizona, a Gramm supporter, said he would "reserve final judgment on American participation in the peace implementation force until the president has made his best case for our involvement to the public and Congress."
At least two prominent Senate Democrats -- Joseph Biden of Delaware and Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island -- voiced misgivings about the troop commitment.
The agreement opens the way for international aid and reconstruction efforts that may reach into the billions of dollars. Among the costs will be compensation of refugees, the victims of the now-familiar term that Bosnia introduced in the lexicon of war: "ethnic cleansing."
According to the agreement, the human rights "of every Bosnian citizen" will be monitored by an independent commission and an internationally trained civilian police force.
Peace pact signed for Bosnia
Key points in the agreement to end the 43-month war in Bosnia:
The land -- Bosnia's boundaries remain the same. Roughly 49 percent of the land will be controlled by a Bosnian Serb state, 51 percent by a Croat-Muslim federation.
The capital -- Sarajevo comes under control of the Croat-Muslim federation.
Politics -- One central government, with a president and parliament elected democratically.
War criminals -- They may not hold political office. Both the politcal and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs have been indicted.
Rival armies -- A demilitarized zone about four kilometers (move than two miles) wide will separate them.