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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Ground War Split Comes Into Focus

Military: Blair declares unity among NATO members on troop issue, but Germany, Italy and U.S. aren't with him.

May 19, 1999|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — The more loudly British Prime Minister Tony Blair declares that there is unity among NATO governments on the war in Yugoslavia, the more apparent his differences with Washington and the European continent become.

Blair made his second trip to the Balkans in two weeks Tuesday to reassure Kosovo refugees that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's resolve is unshaken.

"We have taken this [military] action after months of negotiation failed. We will carry it through until we reach a successful conclusion," Blair said.

But as Blair was speaking in northern Albania, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder met in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema and rejected Britain's latest efforts to rally support for ground troops to go into Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic.

"Germany believes that sending in ground troops is unthinkable. This is our position, and it won't change in the future," Schroeder said.

Washington also has resisted Blair's argument that NATO forces should enter Kosovo without the consent of the government in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, once NATO generals determine that the Serbs are incapable of mounting an organized defense.

In Washington on Tuesday, President Clinton said NATO should continue the air war. However, he opened the door wider than he has in the past to the possibility of sending troops into combat, though White House officials later emphasized that he had not meant to signal a dramatic shift in policy.

"I and everyone else has always said that we intend to see our objectives achieved and that we have not, and will not, take any option off the table," Clinton said.

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Clinton's statement was intended to tell Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that "NATO will win, and if it requires some other action [beyond the air campaign], we will look at it."

Clinton administration officials and most NATO allies have long insisted that the ongoing campaign of intense aerial bombing can force Milosevic to agree to NATO's conditions for ending the conflict in Kosovo. At the same time, they are looking for a negotiated settlement with Milosevic, even though that is likely to mean some compromise.

The search for a negotiated solution was the reason for Schroeder's trip to Rome. Italy is seeking a temporary cease-fire to give diplomacy a chance.

The rift between Britain and its allies over the issue of ground troops stems from internal politics. Germany and Italy are ruled by coalition governments that include left-of-center parties uneasy about bombing a European neighbor.

Blair, by contrast, has no political constraints. His Labor Party is in firm control of Parliament, where only a few members on the far left and far right oppose the war. A majority of the public also supports a ground war.

This lack of opposition--and a moral conviction that "ethnic cleansing" in Europe's backyard must not be allowed to succeed--has given Blair latitude to take the lead on the issue of ground troops, which many military analysts believe to be the only way to achieve all of NATO's goals.

The alliance has said it wants Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo and allow an armed, international peacekeeping force with NATO troops at its core to usher the ethnic Albanian refugees back home.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook is to travel to Washington on Thursday for what he calls a demonstration of "the solidarity of our two governments." But the British press sees his trip as a "rescue mission" to shore up U.S. nerve.

The view in Britain is that the Clinton administration is weak-kneed on Kosovo because it fears American casualties in a protracted war like Vietnam. Clinton is seen as failing to provide the leadership required of the world's only remaining superpower.

Clinton's reluctance to use ground troops apparently caught Blair by surprise. The prime minister seems to have believed that Britain's special relationship with the United States and his own friendship with Clinton would persuade the president to deploy ground troops if necessary.

"He heard Clinton say that we will do whatever it takes to win," said Dana Allin, a Balkans analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "And while Clinton said he didn't think ground forces would be necessary, the implication was that if they were, something would be done. Blair took it seriously . . . but it seems Clinton is not willing to do what it takes."

The British government says it does not favor a full-scale invasion of Kosovo but that NATO troops could go into a "semi-permissive environment," in which the Yugoslav army has been weakened but NATO still would encounter pockets of resistance.

"It is fairly evident to us that there has got to be a force in Kosovo with a real trunk of NATO [troops]," said a Foreign Office official who spoke on the condition he not be identified.

"There is no doubt this force has got to be fairly heavily armed. The debate is at what point you deem it safe to go in. It is a debate over tactics and timing. I don't think it is a split."

*

Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.

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