WASHINGTON — BOSNIA may finally be at peace. By arm-twisting the Balkan rivals into a peace accord, the Clinton administration has achieved what no one else could in almost four years of ethnic mayhem. But the deal faces huge hurdles, including fierce domestic opposition to the participation of 20,000 American troops in a risk-fraught NATO peacekeeping operation.
Negotiators for Bosnia's Muslims, Serbs, and Croats reached the agreement Nov. 21 after US mediators mounted a last-ditch full-court press to break a deadlock that had appeared to doom the three-week-long talks at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Sources say the negotiations were saved when Secretary of State Warren Christopher engineered a compromise between Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, and President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia on the last swath of disputed territory.
Mr. Christopher's feat not withstanding, peace in Bosnia remains far from durable. The agreement the Balkan leaders took home includes compromises that could prove too tough for many of their peoples to swallow after so much killing, suffering, and destruction.
For his part, President Clinton is embarking on one of the most risky gambles of his political career. He is already feuding with the GOP-controlled Congress over contributing 20,000 American troops to an unprecedented 60,000-member NATO peacekeeping operation. Should the agreement break down and Americans sustain serious casualties, voters unconvinced as to why the Americans were sent could deny Mr. Clinton a second term in next year's election.
In announcing the agreement in a live televised address from White House Rose Garden, Mr. Clinton persevered in trying to build support for US participation in the NATO operation. ''The United States, as NATO's leader, must play an essential role in this mission. Without us, the hard-won peace would be lost, the war would resume, the slaughter of innocents would begin again, and the conflict that has already claimed so many people could spread like poison throughout the entire region,'' he said.
There are also significant foreign policy implications for the US in peace plan. Success could reaffirm the United States as the paramount global military and political power, while failure could gravely erode its position as the chief guarantor of European security and the linchpin of the NATO alliance.
The tenuousness of the accord was underscored by frenetic bargaining among the three sides that persisted past the expiration of a 10 a.m. Nov. 20 deadline that American mediators had set for the conclusion of a deal.
An estimated 200,000 people have been killed, more than 2 million driven from their homes, and huge swaths of territory devastated in Europe's worst conflict since the end of World War II in 1945. The war began in earnest in April 1992 after a majority of Bosnian Serbs, whipped into a frenzy of fear and nationalism by media controlled by Milosevic, refused to join the Muslims and Croats in supporting Bosnia's secession from the then-crumbling Yugoslav federation. The Bosnia Serbs, backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army, sought to create a ''Greater Serbia'' by uniting the territory they seized with Serbia.
In theory, the peace accord maintains Bosnia as a single state under a weak central government. But, in reality, it provides for a de-facto partition into a Serb entity - about 49 percent of the republic - and a federation between Bosnia's Muslims and Croats. Muslims made up about 46 percent of the pre-war population, Serbs 37 percent, and Croats 17 percent.
To some extent, the siege-battered capital, Sarajevo, would remain a symbol of Bosnia's pre-war multiethnic ethos as the accord denies the Bosnian Serb demand for a partitioned city.
The NATO force will be deployed on a four-mile-wide corridor that would be created along the proposed territorial boundaries by the withdrawals of the rival armies. The American troops, drawn mainly from the US Army's First Armored Division, based in Germany, are to be stationed in northeastern Bosnia, with their headquarters expected to be in the city of Tuzla.
An advance contingent of US soldiers was expected to arrive in Pecs, Hungary, within the next few days to set up a staging area. Several hundred were then expected to continue on to Bosnia. The full-scale NATO deployment was expected to begin within hours of a formal peace ceremony in to be held in Paris.
As part of the accord, the UN General Assembly was expected to vote Nov. 21 to suspend economic sanctions imposed in May 1992 on Serbia to punish Mr. Milosevic for backing the Bosnian Serb rebels. The sanctions have devastated Serbia's economy. US officials say it was the threat of domestic financial upheaval that forced Milosevic to seek peace. The sanctions could be reimposed if he reneges on the Dayton settlement.
The fragility of the accord was underscored by the frenetic bargaining that continued past the expiration of a 10 a.m. Monday deadline that US mediators had set for the conclusion of a deal. Clinton himself intervened with a telephone call to Mr. Tudjman. But, the haggling persisted into Tuesday morning without success, prompting Bosnian and Croatian officials to declare the talks all but dead until Christopher held a final session.
The deadlock was caused by a despite over a 30-mile-long swath of flatlands on Bosnia's border with Croatia that has long been regarded as the most strategic piece of real estate in the republic. The ''Posavina corridor'' is controlled by the Bosnian Serbs and provides the lifeline between the only major city they control, Banja Luka, in the west, and Serbia on the east.
Sources said the Bosnian Serbs were demanding that in the final settlement they retain control of the corridor and that it be widened. They also opposed the awarding of the region's main town, Brcko, to the Muslim-Croat federation.
In accepting the accord, the three leaders made concessions that could have profound impacts on their political futures. Izetbegovic had to give up the dream of maintaining an undivided, multi-ethnic state. Milosevic had to commit the Bosnian Serbs to foregoing their goal of uniting their territory with Serbia. Mr. Tudjman had to give up a similar desire of annexing Croat-dominated territory.
Aside from whether the accord will be accepted by their people, especially powerful extremist elements, there are other unknowns. These include whether those responsible for the war and the most heinous atrocities committed in Europe since the Holocaust will ever be brought before the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.