ZAGREB, CROATIA — US PRESIDENT Clinton's decision to ask the United Nations to lift the its arms embargo against the Muslim-led Bosnian government could prove disastrous to the very people it is intended to help, UN officials warn.
``People who say they are concerned for Bosnia's Muslims will realize how much they have fanned the flames of war,'' says a senior UN official. ``Washington does not recognize the consequences.''
The first could be a pullout of the 18,000 UN troops who have been safeguarding aid operations for 2 million people, protecting 115,000 Muslims besieged in eastern enclaves, and holding dozens of Bosnian Serb heavy weapons that pummeled Sarajevo for almost two years.
The UN hierarchy and Britain and France, the main contributors to the UN Protection Force, insist on a withdrawal. They say the Bosnian Serbs would regard the United Nations as siding with the Muslim-led government if the arms embargo is lifted.
With UNPROFOR gone, aid operations would halt. And UN officials predict that before any new weapons reached the Bosnian Army, the Bosnian Serbs would overrun the Muslim enclaves and resume the bombardment of Sarajevo.
NATO aircraft policing the Sarajevo weapons-exclusion zone and another around the eastern enclave of Gorazde cannot fill the gap, UN officials say.
That can only be done by replacing UNPROFOR with NATO forces, but neither Washington nor its allies will contribute troops.
Despite such a grim scenario, UN officials say planning for a pullout that could begin by the end of November is going ahead.
``It's not a political game,'' says the senior UN official. ``We are serious. We have been saying this for months.''
Last week, Clinton informed the US Congress that he will ask the UN Security Council by Nov. 1 to exempt the Bosnian government from the UN arms embargo unless the Bosnian Serbs endorse the five-power ``contact group'' peace plan by Oct. 15.
His decision was contained in an endorsement of legislation that would mandate an end to US enforcement of the embargo if the UN Security Council turned down his request.
The contact group peace plan would divide Bosnia almost equally between the Muslim-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serbs, who have repeatedly rejected it since its July 6 unveiling.
The Bosnian Serbs would have to surrender about one-third of the 70 percent of Bosnia they have overrun and shelve their goal of unifying with the rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro.
The contact group - the United States, Britain, France, and Germany - have also agreed to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian government as a ``last resort.''
President Clinton's decision to act on the embargo threat was seen by some analysts as a bid to squeeze the Bosnian Serbs further. But others say it is driven by US domestic politics, with the White House trying to appease Congressional opponents of the embargo without considering the consequences.
The Bosnian government welcomed Clinton's decision. It has long condemned the embargo, imposed on all six former Yugoslav republics in 1991, as a violation of its right to self-defense against better-equipped Bosnian Serb forces armed by rump Yugoslavia's army.
In a recent interview, Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic seemed to justify fears that lifting the embargo would escalate bloodletting that has already claimed an estimated 200,000 lives since March 1992.
``When the arms embargo is lifted, then we will have a war. So far, it has been [Bosnian Serb] attacks on civilians and civilian targets,'' Prime Minister Silajdzic said. ``It's a classic aggression in which the victim happens to be under an arms embargo.''
Even with the embargo, however, supplies have been reaching the Bosnia Army from ``friends,'' as Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic puts it.
UN officials say the supplies - small arms, ammunition, radio gear, mortars, and night-vision equipment - have helped transform what was little more than a ragtag militia at the beginning of the war into a capable, well-disciplined fighting force.
The London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies gives the Bosnian Army a huge advantage in infantry, with 110,000 troops to 80,000 Bosnian Serb soldiers. But the Bosnian Serbs retain a superiority in heavy arms. The institute gives them 330 tanks and 800 artillery pieces, compared to the Bosnian Army's 40 tanks and 400 artillery pieces.
Even if the embargo is lifted, it would take several years for the Bosnian Army to acquire sufficient numbers of heavy weapons, and even more time for its troops to learn how to use them.
UN officials also warn that the Bosnian Serbs will not sit by while Bosnian government forces re-arm, but will launch offensives to close the government's relatively few supply routes.