WASHINGTON -- The United States, in a major policy shift, is prepared to help guarantee an eventual settlement of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and, if necessary, send U.S. troops in a peacekeeping operation, a senior U.S. official said last night.
International mediators Cyrus R. Vance and Lord Owen have suggested that about 25,000 peacekeepers will be needed to enforce the peace plan they have put forward for the former Yugoslav province.
U.S. officials stressed last night that, in keeping with President Clinton's campaign statements, there were "no plans to commit any troops at this time."
However, officials said the United States is telling its allies that should an eventual settlement of the conflict be reached along the "fair" and "workable" lines the administration favors, the United States is prepared to help guarantee the results.
If necessary, the United States would be willing to contribute to a peacekeeping operation on the ground, said the senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity.
In the past, the United States has avoided sending large numbers of forces into open-ended peacekeeping arrangement because of Cold War friction and more recently, to avoid turning U.S. soldiers into easy targets for snipers and terrorists, as occurred in Lebanon during the early 1980s.
The Clinton administration has objected to the Vance-Owen peace plan, which divides Bosnia-Herzegovina into 10 autonomous provinces run by the warring parties -- Serbs, Croats and Muslims -- and establishes a central government.
The administration feels that the Vance-Owen proposal is not fair enough to the outgunned Bosnian Muslims. The Muslims claim that the map gives too much territory to the Serbs, thus rewarding them for their aggression and so-called campaign of "ethnic cleansing."
Western European nations and Russia, however, have backed the Vance-Owen plan, and U.S. allies have placed heavy pressure on Washington to commit itself to enforcing any peace plan that it shapes.
By showing willingness to send ground troops to Bosnia to guarantee a settlement, the United States expects to enhance its leverage in shaping a peace agreement to its liking.
U.S. officials said the Clinton administration is poised to announce a plan aimed at modifying the Vance-Owen plan.
The U.S. proposals would give more concessions to the Bosnian Muslims, widely seen as victims of Serbian aggression, and include a series of steps increasing pressure on the Serbs to make concessions in negotiations, the officials said.
Britain and France each have thousands of peacekeeping troops on the ground in the former Yugoslavia and have cited their safety in opposing enforcement of a U.N. Security Council resolution that declared a no-fly zone over Bosnia.
But any eventual settlement in Bosnia would require what diplomats call a more "muscular" peacekeeping operation than the United Nations usually dispatches.
The peacekeeping troops would be more heavily armed than is now the case and given more flexible rules on when they can fire.
One of the key tasks in Bosnia would be to prevent any of the parties from using heavy weapons now fueling the brutal war.
If the peacekeepers actually are assigned to take possession of heavy weapons, a force larger than 25,000 would be required, an official involved in the negotiations said last night.
Unlike current peacekeeping operations run by the United Nations, the Bosnia forces probably would not fall under a U.N. military command.
Rather, the force would be sanctioned or mandated by the United Nations but kept firmly within control of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in which the United States is by far the largest power.
The United States has consistently refused to put any significant number of troops under the United Nations' or anyone else's command.
Winning Russian support for such an arrangement would be difficult, but Moscow is considered likely to go along with such a force if it is sent by the Security Council.
The change in policy came after a week of intensive consultations with U.S. allies.