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Crisis in Yugoslavia | NEWS ANALYSIS

Some Critical Parallels in Iraq, Yugoslavia


WASHINGTON — Even if NATO airstrikes achieve all of the stated objectives, the United States faces the danger that the Yugoslav crisis may prove just as inconclusive and unsatisfying over the long haul as the seemingly decisive allied victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Current and former U.S. officials acknowledge that the 19 North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries face a problem similar to the dilemma encountered by the 32-nation coalition in Operation Desert Storm: the gap between the short-term goal of ending a tyrant's assault on a territory claimed by his government and the long-term challenge of trusting or dealing with an aggressive regime that has a long record of "ethnic cleansing" and massive human rights abuses.

In other words, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic could be another Saddam Hussein. And Washington could end up pushing for his replacement as the only means of ensuring peace in the region, just as ousting the Iraqi president has become a stated U.S. goal.

"We forced an aggressive dictator out of Kuwait, only to leave him in Baghdad as a threat to all around him. Are we now going to force another aggressive dictator out of Kosovo but leave him in Belgrade?" one administration official asked. "That's what it's likely to come down to--and that's also going to be a very tough decision."

The Kosovo crisis may thus produce the same Catch-22 that has led to a prolonged U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf.

"Any sort of consensual arrangement between the Kosovars and the Serbs as long as Milosevic is there is inconceivable. Yet getting rid of him may prove impossible," said Richard Haass, the Bush administration National Security Council director of Mideast policy now at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

Not even ground troops would solve that inherent political conundrum, unless they went all the way to Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital--a prospect as unlikely as that of U.S. troops moving on Baghdad was after Kuwait was liberated. In both cases, the initial mandate was limited--to restoring autonomy in Kosovo and sovereignty in Kuwait.

Despite important differences between the Yugoslav and Iraqi crises, the similarities between the two greatest challenges to the United States in the post-Cold War world often are uncanny.

The most striking involves the two nations' tactical collaboration as both face mounting pressure from aerial bombardment and economic sanctions.

As the crisis has closed in on Yugoslavia and the U.S. has stepped up airstrikes on Iraq, Belgrade and Baghdad have conducted a series of secret talks over the last six months and exchanged data about air-defense systems and strategies to be used against Western war strikes, according to senior administration and NATO officials.

Yugoslav military and Defense Ministry officials visited Iraq and its key air-defense installations in February and early March. The Yugoslavs discussed smuggling spare parts for Iraq's air-defense system to Baghdad, in defiance of the toughest U.N. sanctions ever imposed on any nation, according to U.S. officials.

In exchange, Hussein's military chiefs briefed the Yugoslavs on Iraq's experiences and tactics in defending against eight years of sporadic U.S. and British airstrikes that have escalated into almost daily bombardments since Operation Desert Fox began in December. British officials charged last month that Yugoslavia has employed some Iraqi defense tactics, such as moving its most important antiaircraft weaponry into civilian areas that NATO might be reluctant to target.

Since the Gulf War, Iraq also has learned how to defeat the U.S. satellite spy system by masking or planting decoys, so that satellites either can't capture images of what's on the ground or analysts are confused by what they see, according to Judith Yaphe, a senior analyst at the National Defense University in Washington. The Iraqis also have learned the timing of the satellite imaging, so they know when to move or hide equipment--all of which would be helpful to the Yugoslavs.

"The attraction in this relationship generally is that both have similar military systems and very compatible equipment, and they face the same kind of air threat from the West," a senior administration official said. Both also face problems with international embargoes that restrict their access to materiel.

The two nations' game plans are virtually identical, the official added. Both have put heavy emphasis on shooting down U.S. aircraft and taking American prisoners.

"They both operate on the assumption that the United States' will to fight is shallow and short-lived," the official added.

In dealing diplomatically with the West, the strategies of Belgrade and Baghdad also are likely to be similar, officials say.

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