Washington, 11 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is urging Congress not to debate the issue of whether to deploy American troops to Kosovo as part of a NATO peacekeeping force. But the leader of the House of Representatives says the issue will be examined.
Albright says such a debate would send the wrong signal to Belgrade and hurt prospects of reaching a political settlement for the independence-minded Serbian province. She made the comments Wednesday in testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives' appropriations subcommittee.
Albright said: "I am aware that the House is considering a vote on whether to authorize such a mission. My request this morning is that such a vote not be taken while we are at this critical time in our negotiations and in our attempts to secure a settlement. We will not make a decision on sending U.S. troops until we have an agreement (between Serbs and Kosovars) in hand and can evaluate whether it meets the condition President (Bill) Clinton outlined."
Clinton has said troops will not be deployed in Kosovo unless both sides sign a peace deal and endorse a NATO peacekeeping operation.
Albright added: "A congressional debate now, I can assure you, will complicate our efforts to get the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians on board. And the idea that this debate goes on while the president and I and (Defense Secretary William) Cohen are out of the country, as I will join them later today (Wednesday), and I might add that a vote at this time sends a totally wrong signal to Milosevic and to our NATO allies. I might add that a vote at any time to oppose an authorization would be taken by both sides as a green light to resume fighting. "
But House leaders said they plan to forge ahead with a debate, anyway.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois, said: "No one should fear the free expression of ideas and the frank exchange of opinions in a representative democracy. In fact, many can learn from this debate that a free people can disagree without violence and bloodshed."
Hastert scheduled a full floor debate for today (Thursday) on whether 4,000 U.S. troops should be sent to Kosovo. They would be part of a proposed 28,000 strong NATO force. A Senate vote on the same issue could come as early as next week.
Even if both chambers voiced opposition to sending U.S. troops to Kosovo, action considered unlikely, the president would have the power to order the troops there anyway.
Albright said there couldn't be a worse time for Congress to begin debating the issue of U.S. troops -- with U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke in Belgrade meeting with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and President Bill Clinton and most of his national security team out of the country.
Clinton and National Security Adviser Samuel Berger were in Central America and Albright was joining them after her congressional testimony. Defense Secretary William Cohen was traveling in the Middle East.
Also testifying before Congress, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said he would be amazed if the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) agrees to surrender its weapons while Serb troops are allowed to stay in the province. He said he is against sending U.S. troops to Kosovo.
Kissinger said he believes that the present terms of the proposed accord would guarantee that there would be no genuine peace there.
He said in a worst-case scenario, the United States would have to bomb Serbia form it to accept a political settlement in Kosovo and then fight ethnic Albanians in an attempt to disarm them.
Former Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole, who recently returned from the Balkans as Clinton's envoy on Kosovo, also appeared before Congress.
Dole said the fault in Kosovo lies with Milosevic. But Dole said he is frustrated with the UCK as well for not yet signing the political settlement.
In Belgrade, meanwhile, Holbrooke pressed Milosevic to accept a three-year autonomy accord for Kosovo. The Yugoslav leader objects to the stationing of NATO troops there.
NATO has threatened to attack Serb military targets if Milosevic rejects the accord and the ethnic Albanians accept it.
The Kosovars are said to be moving closer to embracing the deal that would give Kosovo autonomy within Serbia, but leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army say they will refuse to sign as long as fighting continues in Kosovo.
Yugoslav forces and ethnic Albanian separatists were reported fighting Wednesday near the Macedonian border and west of Pristina, capital of Kosovo.
Serb and Kosovar negotiators are scheduled to resume talks in France on March 15.