Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina Jan. 26 (RFE/RL) - The residents of Tuzla in northeastern Bosnia can't hold back their smiles of amusement when they see the U.S. troops of the NATO-led peace implementation force in action. Armed to the teeth, the troops move cautiously through the peaceful city in convoys of no fewer than four vehicles. As one local man puts it, they weren't here when the shells were falling and the war was the most severe. Now that peace has come, this man says, the U.S. soldiers who patrol on foot move about like something out of a Rambo movie, apparently expecting an ambush at any moment.
Hans Inks, a 35-year civilian veteran of the U.S. army who has to wear the same kind of full body armor as the active soldiers, is aware of the impression the U.S. forces are giving here. He says bluntly: "It makes us look like we are afraid."
But he says there's an important political rationale for the extreme caution: "We can't afford to take any casualties" because of the unpopularity of the Bosnia action back in the United States. NATO spokesman Colonel Robert Gaylord also emphasizes that protection of the U.S. soldiers is paramount in this Bosnia mission.
Amused smiles aside, the Muslims and Croats of northeastern Bosnia are glad to see the U.S. soldiers. The Serbs are hesitant, but not hostile. Even though not one shot has been fired in anger since the U.S. troops began arriving in December, and the peace plan has so far been implemented smoothly, U.S. force commanders emphasize that dangers remain.
"Let's not be naive," says Inks. "Yes, they have stopped fighting, there seems to be peace. However, there are sufficient individuals out there who could cause us tremendous harm."
For a group of paratroopers who regularly go on patrols in both government-held territory and Serb-held territory, the mission is turning out to be far less dangerous than they anticipated.
Corporal James Poole, a 23-year-old paratrooper, says "once we got here we realized the peace plan had definitely been implemented. It's not really hazardous. It's pretty safe." His fellow paratrooper, 24-year-old Melvin Lopez, chimes in: "It's totally different to what we trained for. There's nothing going on."
Any problems the three former warring parties have in complying with the Dayton Peace Accords are referred to joint military commissions that group representatives of all sides with NATO military commanders.
Colonel Hank Stratman, chief of the joint military commission in the Tuzla region, reports that all sides have been, in his words, "very cooperative so far, as you can see by the results." He says that both sides seem happy to have IFOR, as the peace force is known, in their country. Stratman says: "The environment here was much more cooperative than we anticipated."
Major Jim Neal's job as a civil affairs officer is to establish contacts with both the local authorities and local residents. He is another who says the atmosphere is "less threatening than we anticipated coming in."
He says the only complaint he hears from local residents is that they would like to have more contact with the U.S. soldiers. For at least the first few months, the U.S. soldiers are prohibited from going off the base on social visits to town -- a constraint that rankles some of the bored soldiers, but one that others, like Corporal Poole, understand. He says it's probably best to avoid the appearance of favoritism by socializing with residents in predominantly-Muslim Tuzla, but not in Serb-held areas.
NATO spokesman Colonel Gaylord makes it clear that vigilance is still the order of the day despite the apparent lack of threats at the start of the mission. He says: "Complacency is a very dangerous thing. We are not going to be complacent. We can't be lulled into any sense of security."