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Bihac Bigwig Key Player in Bosnia End Game : Balkans: Fikret Abdic has what many consider a valid point to make about the right of the republic's president to stay in power.


VELIKA KLADUSA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The Muslim politician through whom Western mediators are trying to fashion an ethnic division of Bosnia-Herzegovina has a prison record, a reputation for shadowy deal-making and little understanding of the suffering in faraway Sarajevo.

But Fikret Abdic, a member of Bosnia's collective presidency from this isolated northwestern corner of the war-torn country, also has what many consider a valid point to make about President Alija Izetbegovic's right to stay in power.

The 10-member presidency has been split into two camps lately by the West's seeming acceptance of the military triumph of Serbian and Croatian militants and the victors' demands that Bosnia be divided into three ethnic ministates.

Despite intense pressure from European Community negotiator Lord Owen, Izetbegovic has refused on principle to discuss ethnic division with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Croatian chieftain Mate Boban. Their forces have seized most of the country in 15 months of war.

Abdic, however, says that "all options are still open" and has signaled to Owen and his fellow mediator from the United Nations, Thorvald Stoltenberg, that at least some members of the leadership are willing to consider a fundamental compromise if it would bring peace.

Sarajevo-based leaders accuse Owen and Stoltenberg of encouraging a rift in the presidency in hopes of deposing Izetbegovic, whom they have been unable to compel to accept defeat and partition.

"They are now working for Boban and Karadzic. They are brokers for them," Vice President Ejup Ganic said of the mediators after deadlocked meetings in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. "Soon they will realize their mistake, but the damage will be done."

Ganic accused Owen of trying to undermine Izetbegovic by dealing with Abdic instead. But he insisted that there is no substantial difference of opinion among the presidency members and therefore no chance of partition.

Abdic tells a different story. The portly businessman, whose Agrocomerc food-processing enterprise accounts for half of the economy in this predominantly Muslim region known as the Bihac pocket, evades a direct answer when asked if he believes the mediators are trying to circumvent Izetbegovic.

"You'll have to ask them," he replied in an interview. "Izetbegovic and the others are out of touch with the people. They are content just talking within their political parties. They don't have contact with the common people."

Coming from a man who has spent most of the past month on Croatia's Adriatic Sea coast or in Switzerland and has been accused of embezzling money from Bosnian refugees, there is a hollow ring to the charge Abdic makes against Izetbegovic, who has weathered the worst of the war's sieges from the heart of shell-ravaged Sarajevo.

Yet Bosnians here and in the capital complain that Izetbegovic now rules without legal mandate, because the leadership was to have passed to one of the Croatian members of the presidency in December. Citing the raging war as grounds for postponing the rotation, Izetbegovic has continued to rule under proclaimed emergency powers.

"Under the circumstances in our country, I would hate to be seen as stabbing him in the back," Abdic said of the president. He insisted, however, that Izetbegovic has no right to decide important affairs in Bosnia.

Abdic also contends that Izetbegovic and his supporters have launched a smear campaign against him. Shortly after Abdic came to the political fore last month by agreeing to talk about a partition, Austrian newspapers reported that he was being investigated on suspicion of having misused more than $8 million that Bosnians abroad had deposited with the Vienna office of Agrocomerc for relay to their relatives in this region, which is surrounded by heavily armed Serbs.

"He must be behind this somehow, so that my rating will drop," Abdic said of Izetbegovic and the foreign accusations made against him. "Otherwise, people will see that things work well in the Bihac pocket and would wonder why that isn't the case elsewhere in Bosnia."

The large Bihac region does function better than most of the "free" territory in Bosnia. The few dozen shells fired into the pocket each day mostly land on the city of Bihac, leaving the rest of the region relatively safe for farming and some industry. Widespread smuggling through surrounding Serbian lines keeps the area reasonably well supplied, including with arms and gasoline rumored to be Abdic franchises.

Local officials boast that the police and army are more effective than elsewhere in Bosnia, although U.N. troops tend to attribute the lower-level conflict here to the fact that the region is already effectively neutralized by the surrounding noose of Serbian-held territory.

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