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House backs Kosovo effort; Resolution passes narrowly, but GOP opposition is strong; 'No strategic game plan'; Peacekeeping force supported, but accord remains uncertain

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Even as Republican members expressed misgivings, the House voted narrowly last night to back the use of U.S. troops in Kosovo to enforce any peace agreement.

Ignoring Clinton administration fears about the impact that a debate or vote might have on peace talks, opponents mustered 191 votes against a nonbinding resolution to support the use of American peacekeepers.

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Although the resolution passed with 219 mostly Democratic votes in favor, the strong Republican opposition signaled GOP reservations about the mission amid complaints that the military already is stretched too thin.

"There is simply no vision to the mission, no timetable, no strategic game plan -- symbolic of the lack of direction of our entire American foreign policy," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, one of President Clinton's most vociferous critics.

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"We've had a six-year trend of sending American troops anywhere for any reason, but no consistent goals to tie all of these missions together."

But Democrats argued that Clinton's promise to include 4,000 U.S. troops in the NATO force is critical to stopping ethnic violence in the province.

"This is not the time to be isolationist," New York Democrat Eliot L. Engel implored his colleagues. "We've seen the carnage, and only the United States can stop it."

As a practical matter, Congress cannot stop a president from dispatching U.S. forces except by denying funds to pay for the venture, which would hurt soldiers already in the field.

But congressional disapproval undermines the political support that is vital to a mission that might cost American lives.

"I cannot in good conscience support the proposed deployment because it is poorly considered and depends on agreement with the very man who is responsible for the Balkan horrors in the first place," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, referring to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"Our troops may find themselves opposed by free-lance opponents on both sides of this," the Texan warned. "This could be another Somalia."

Democrats acknowledged the role of peacekeepers standing between two warring forces is fraught with danger.

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"The whole problem with being a world leader is that sometimes we have to lead," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat. "Leadership involves taking some risk and adopting some unpopular postions. No one is cavalier about putting troops in harm's way."

All the other members of the Maryland delegation also supported the troop deployment, except Republicans Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland.

Albright, Dole ignored

In scheduling debate for yesterday, Republican leaders ignored warnings from Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Bob Dole, the former GOP Senate majority leader, that exposing U.S. political divisions could embolden Milosevic and endanger negotiations.

"To conduct a divisive debate in Congress and perhaps fail to support our government's efforts is the height of irresponsibility," charged House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "It seems that politics has infected foreign policy -- with great harm to our credibility overseas."

But GOP leaders heeded instead the demands of Republicans who feared that waiting until after an agreement is reached would deny them any chance to make their views known. Clinton has promised to send 4,000 troops to Kosovo within 48 hours of an agreement being signed.

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What bubbled forth on the House floor yesterday was a caldron of GOP discontent over Clinton administration foreign and military policy.

Members not only objected to injecting U.S. forces into what some regard as an internal Yugoslav dispute, but also expressed the frustration of years of feeling misled or left out by the president.

And GOP members complained that the Pentagon budget simply isn't big enough to support the peacekeeping missions already under way. They say service personnel are being required to spend extensive tours of duty overseas, to the detriment of themselves and the military as a whole.

Meanwhile, the situation in Kosovo looked anything but settled with more attacks by Serbian forces and pessimistic statements by would-be mediators.

Fighting in Kosovo

Yugoslav forces poured into southwestern Kosovo before dawn yesterday and shelled villages near Prizren, the province's second-largest city, dampening the prospects for success in peace talks next week.

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Hundreds of ethnic Albanians fled the new offensive on tractor-pulled wagons as tank and mortar fire boomed in an area surrounded by army troops and Serbian police. Prizren is 40 miles southwest of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

About midday, three Serbian military teams began to pour mortar and artillery fire on Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) lines outside the village of Osljane, 12 miles north of Pristina.

"They are trying to drive a wedge between two KLA zones," said a local KLA officer taking shelter from the fire, which appeared to be aimed at knocking out KLA mortar posts.

At least two villages were burned and looted amid a Serbian offensive.

Civilians in danger

With no political settlement in sight, the head of the United Nations refugee agency warned of a rising level of violence against civilians.

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"The humanitarian situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly despite the ongoing diplomatic efforts," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata said during a visit to Washington.

Her agency also warned of a "very grim situation" along the border with Macedonia, where 7,200 ethnic Albanians are believed to have fled in recent days to escape the fighting.

The new fighting and U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke's failure to persuade Milosevic to accept foreign troops in Kosovo to monitor a peace settlement muddied the chances of success at talks scheduled for Monday in Paris.

A NATO threat to strike Yugoslav and Serbian targets stands if Kosovo's Albanians sign a peace plan and Milosevic does not. But Holbrooke was low-key yesterday after his effort to pressure Milosevic failed.

"We don't like to go around rattling rockets and making threatening gestures," he said. "Our positions are clear and President Milosevic knows them, and we will be in continuing contact with him."

KLA fails to sign

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Western hopes of putting maximum pressure on Milosevic have been undermined by the failure of the KLA to sign the peace deal, despite promising to do so.

Kosovo Albanian negotiator Veton Surroi blamed the head of the delegation, Hashim Thaci, for failing to sign the peace plan. "His behavior is irresponsible," said Surroi. "By signing it, we would allow the attention to be shifted to Milosevic."

In Washington, Dole expressed frustration with the KLA, criticizing what he termed delaying tactics and a failure of leadership.

"Frankly, I'm a little disgusted with the attitude of the Kosovars," said Dole, a longtime supporter of the ethnic Albanian cause who spoke to the ethnic Albanian leaders this week.

Greece and Russia, which have strong ties to fellow Orthodox Christian Serbs, have picked up the mediator's baton.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou said he hoped the traditionally strong links between Athens and Belgrade might prove useful. He and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov are due to see Milosevic today.

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Wire services contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 3/12/99


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