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Arming Muslims Led To Peace Accords, U.S. Official Says

Washington, May 24 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. had little choice but to ignore the delivery of Iranian weapons to Bosnia's Muslim government in 1994 or Bosnian Serbs would have taken control of the entire former Yugoslav republic, a senior U.S. official contends.

Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Strobe Talbott also says the U.S. decision in 1994 proved to be a link in the chain of events that led to the Bosnian peace settlement signed in the United States last fall.

The decision was for the U.S. to tell the government of neighboring Croatia that it would neither approve nor disapprove of the shipment of Iranian guns to Bosnian Muslims through Croatia.

This decision, Talbott explained, was couched in the nuance of diplomatic language.

He told the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee on Thursday that, when the Croatians raised the issue of the shipments with U.S. Ambassador to Zagreb Peter Galbraith in April 1994, Galbraith was told to reply that he had "no instructions."

That amounted to telling Croatia that the U.S. would not endorse the strategy but would not interfere either, Talbott said.

The Senate committee is examining what role the U.S. played in the shipment of Iranian arms through Croatia to Bosnia's Muslim government. At the time, an international arms embargo was in force, and President Bill Clinton was rejecting calls from the U.S. Congress to unilaterally ignore the embargo and re-arm the Bosnian government.

Talbott was asked to provide details on the thinking in Clinton's administration about the issue.

Talbott, as have other officials before him, said the government's position in Bosnia in early 1994 was desperate. The Bosnian Serbs controlled 70 percent of the territory and were close to overrunning the rest.

"Sarajevo and the other enclaves were surrounded," Talbott said. "They were at the mercy of Serb forces, who were resorting to the greatest brutality, who were using the cutoff of electricity and water and food as weapons of war."

The international community was divided over what to do, said Talbott. The U.S. wanted the international arms embargo lifted and also advocated greater use of NATO alliance air power against Serb positions. European nations with troops in Bosnia as part of United Nations peacekeeping operations opposed this strategy.

The Muslims, who had recently formed a federation with Croats in Bosnia, looked to the Croatian Government for help. Croatia was willing but it wanted to know the reaction of the U.S. first, Talbott said.

Talbott said the U.S. realized that, "the only way to bring weapons into Bosnia in large numbers was through Croatia." He said the decision to say that there were "no instructions" had disadvantages, chiefly that the largest supplier of arms would be Iran. "But after careful consideration, we decided that the consequences of any other answer would be worse," Talbott said.

"If we had explicitly, affirmatively approved the transshipment it would have put us in the position of actively and unilaterally supporting a violation of the arms embargo," Talbott said. "The public disclosure of such a posture would have caused severe strains with our allies, who had troops on the ground in Bosnia."

Had the U.S. told Croatia that it opposed the weapons shipments "we would have exacerbated the already desperate military situation of the Bosnians, and very likely doomed the Federation of Muslims and Croats," Talbott said.

However, Talbott said the U.S. decision contributed to a reversal of the fortunes of the Bosnian government.

"The Bosnian armed forces held on and began to counterattack, the federation survived to become a cornerstone of the Dayton agreement, we averted a crisis in the alliance," Talbott said. "We bought time for a combination of American diplomacy, NATO air power and Croatian and Bosnian military victories to reach a historic peace agreement under U.S. leadership in Dayton."

Talbott said that history has shown that "a tough decision turned out to be the right decision."