SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — THE rumors are endless: Hundreds of battle-hardened Islamic ``freedom fighters'' are in Bosnia defending their Muslim brothers. Planes from rich Arab states arrive secretly with weapons. And a limitless credit line from Islamic countries helps finance the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
The truth is somewhat different, however. While Islamic countries are playing a role in Bosnia's war between Muslims and Christian Serbs, the extent of their assistance may be far less promising for the beleaguered government in Sarajevo.
UN officials say some mujahideen (resistance fighters) may be fighting in Bosnia and some arms smuggling may be occurring, but not enough to dramatically shift the fortunes of the poorly equipped Bosnian Army.
``I couldn't even give you anecdotal evidence of it,'' one United Nations official says.
Barred by a UN embargo from openly sending arms and blocked by Bosnian Serbs and Croats from sending in humanitarian aid convoys, frustrated Islamic countries are helping the only way they can - with cash.
Islamic countries are funneling tens of millions of dollars in aid to the Bosnian government through direct grants and Islamic aid organizations. UN officials say it has long been common for airport security officials to find hundreds of thousands of German marks in small denominations inside the suitcases of Islamic aid workers bound for Sarajevo.
Islamic aid groups say the money is distributed to needy civilians unable to afford the fresh food and Western goods routinely smuggled into Sarajevo.
``There are individuals traveling with $30,000,'' says Kris Janowski, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Sarajevo. ``They're just trying to help them, and money is a way to do it.''
But some tensions do exist between the UN and Islamic groups. Bosnian government officials and some Islamic aid workers complain that the Western-dominated UN favors Western aid organizations over Islamic groups, who say they aid all Bosnians, not just Muslims. ``The main reason is they are Islamic,'' a Bosnian government official says, ``and the West is afraid of Islamic influence in this area.''
Only Turkey and Iran have established permanent embassies in Sarajevo. Officials from both countries say their governments still back a proposal by United States Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas to lift the UN-led arms embargo against the Bosnian government, but deny they are illegally shipping arms.
Most of the suspicion has focused around Iranians, who have been active in Bosnia since the war began three years ago and are just completing construction of an ornate embassy in downtown Sarajevo.
``We help how ever we can - but no soldiers, no guns,'' says Mohammed Mohammedi, third secretary in the Iranian Embassy.
Islamic countries have been frustrated by their inability to get the West to lift the arms embargo and allow them to arm the Muslim-led Bosnian government.
The number of peacekeepers from Islamic countries - mostly Turkey, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Egypt - has gradually increased to one-fourth of the 22,000 UN troops here.
But the increase in Islamic troops has failed to translate into influence on the ground in Bosnia or at the UN Security Council in New York. The French and British dominate the UN operation on the ground, and both the Security Council and the Western ``contact group'' negotiators have no Islamic members.
Islamic states are instead sending money. Last month, Saudi Arabia announced it was distributing $33 to each of the estimated 20,000 orphans in Sarajevo.
In November, an Egyptian aid group contributed $33,000 to cover the cost of repairing gas lines in one Sarajevo neighborhood. The government of Kuwait also made a one-time, $33 payment to all workers at the city's main hospital.
Sakib Sokolovic, a Bosnian doctor who helps coordinate aid among Islamic aid organizations in Sarajevo, estimates that the roughly 20 Islamic humanitarian organizations contributed $62 million in aid to Bosnia last year.
Life for Arab aid workers can be extremely dangerous in Bosnia. Two Arab aid workers from London-based Muwafaq Foundation took a wrong turn in central Bosnia and ended up in Serb-held territory. They were arrested, accused of being mujahideen, and imprisoned for two months. Their car and the $33,000 they were carrying were taken by the Serbs and the organization had to pay $66,000 in ransom to have them freed.
``We really try to avoid going through [Serb and Croat] territory,'' says Jusuf Khan, a program coordinator with the London-based aid group Islamic Relief. ``They treat us like we are thieves or something.''
Dr. Sokolovic says he wishes the rumors of mujahideen and arms smuggling were true. But he said the stories are just Serb propaganda that makes operating in the former Yugoslavia extremely difficult for Islamic aid groups.
``Look, if there were really all the mujahideen and weapons coming in, wouldn't something have happened by now?'' he said in frustration. ``If it were true, we would be winning the war by now.''