Pentagon urged to divert troops from Balkans.

Senior American military officers, particularly in the beleaguered US army, are pushing the Pentagon to withdraw all US peacekeepers from the Balkans to make resources and troops available for overstretched operations in Iraq.

Although the number of US forces in the two Nato operations in the former Yugoslavia is relatively small -- 1,500 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, two-thirds of which are logistics personnel, and 2,000 in Kosovo -- people who have briefed on the internal Pentagon debate said the army has insisted on the move, arguing, "every little bit helps".

"The DoD [Department of Defense] wants out," said one former top Pentagon official. "It's driven by the joint staff and the army."

Although the army has made similar arguments in the past, officers are making headway. According to a senior Bush administration official, the current debate began as part of a thorough review of all US commitments abroad, which has gained more urgency as it became clear more than 100,000 US troops would remain in Iraq indefinitely.

"The Balkans have always been essentially a European challenge more than an American one," the administration official said. "Much of Europe seems bound and determined to leave Iraq as primarily an American challenge. Perhaps, therefore, a more clear-cut division of labour is in order."

A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment. But sources said opposition from some Pentagon civilians, as well as state department officials, centres on the diplomatic impact of withdrawing, as well as whether European allies - particularly the French and Germans - can successfully take over operations.

"It has symbolic value," said one person familiar with the discussions. "We could leave, but unless our allies are willing to pick it up, it could all fall apart." A withdrawal of US forces could be particularly problematic in Kosovo where local leaders have insisted only American forces can serve as neutral arbiters.

Army resources in Iraq have become a highly charged political issue, occasionally pitting senior brass and their congressional backers against Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, who has resisted sending new troops to the region or increasing the size of the army as a whole. At current strength, almost all active army personnel will serve in Iraq over a two-year period, according to some estimates.A pull-out would be a significant reversal for the Bush administration, which as recently as June brushed off EU overtures to take over the 12,000-strong force in Bosnia, arguing that it needed to keep a presence to hunt down Islamic militants in the region. Colin Powell, secretary of state, has repeatedly said US Balkan policy is: "We went in together and we will come out together."

Because of UK commitments in Iraq, any European-led operation would rely heavily on France. European diplomats said the US would still probably insist the mission be carried out through Nato to ensure it retained some political control.

[Source: By Peter Spiegel in London by The Financial Times, London, UK, 17Sep03]

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Este documento ha sido publicado el 21oct03 por el Equipo Nizkor y Derechos Human Rights