Bosnia Weighs US Aid Against Loyalty to Iran

DESPITE mounting pressure from the United States and other Western powers, Bosnia has not complied with demands to rid its territory of Islamic fighters from Iran and other Muslim countries.

Failure to comply, Western officials say, has placed the Muslim-led government in violation of the Dayton peace accord and is jeopardizing Bosnia's future relations with the West.

The continuing presence of Iran - one of Bosnia's few allies during nearly four years of war - galls US officials, who made elimination of Iran's military role a precondition for a $400 million US-led effort to equip and train the Bosnian Army.

American pressure has been specifically directed at a secretive security outfit called the Bosnian Agency for Investigation and Documentation (BAID) that emerged in mid-January and is believed to be linked to the Islamic fighters. At a summit in Rome three weeks ago, American diplomats demanded that the agency be shut down. Bosnia has yet to comply.

''If they don't clean this up, it's going to be extremely difficult to move forward,'' says a senior Western official. ''We've heard about a lot of good will from the Bosnians, but as long as the BAID is in place ... you can't say there is any change.''

Bosnia faces a tough choice. It can align with the West, which would bring massive aid for reconstruction, weapons, and training, and a place in Europe. Or it can remain firmly tied to Iran, and risk losing Western support.

Top Bosnian officials say that fears of Iran's influence in Bosnia are overblown and that the decision to side with the West is easy. But intelligence sources, diplomats, and NATO peacekeeping officers confirm that 150 to 200 foreign ''freedom fighters'' remain in Bosnia, though all such fighters were required by the Dayton accord to have left Bosnia by Jan. 19. They are reportedly working from five to seven camps in secret locations across central Bosnia.

Senior Bosnian officials say, however, that below the surface they are making changes.

Ejup Ganic, Bosnia's acting president, doesn't see a crisis. ''We know what the West wants from us,'' he says in an interview. ''Even if those [training camps] exist, let's finish with them.... If we have it, we will remove it.''

The agency is believed to operate largely beyond government control, under former Interior Minister Bakir Alispahic. ''Those who made mistakes will be removed,'' acting President Ganic says. ''Our internal bookkeeping must be put in the right order.''

The link between the camps, BAID, and Iran's clandestine role was made when NATO-led peacekeeping troops swooped in on what they called a ''terrorist cell'' at a remote ski chalet at Fojnica in central Bosnia on Feb. 15.

Three Iranians were arrested, and NATO soldiers found bomb-making gear, specialized weapons, models for attacks on UN premises, and booby-trapped toys. A portrait of Iran's late spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stood on a desk.

Several Bosnians working for the Ministry of Interior were also arrested. Peace force commander Adm. Leighton Smith has warned that he will move against any other camp that he can locate.

Former Bosnian premier Haris Silajdzic, who left the government around the time the agency was created, confirmed in an interview that he ''knew there was something in Fojnica,'' but that ''it was not under my control.''

The NATO raid was a graphic demonstration to many Western officials of how deep Iran's influence is rooted in Bosnia.

Many observers cast Bosnia as an unwitting battleground, where the US is trying to keep Bosnia from becoming a springboard in Europe for a militant Islamic regime. ''The threat they pose is terrorist,'' says a Western military official, ''and the fact that Iran represents a conduit for continued fundamentalist Islamic influence in Bosnia.''

THE root of American fear dates back to 1979, when US Embassy staffers were held hostage in Iran for 444 days.

Since then, Iran's hand has been seen in anti-American attacks worldwide. The threat of Iran is taken so seriously in Washington that the CIA has reportedly considered an $18 million operation to help overthrow its regime.

But in Bosnia, ''Iran was welcomed by a group of people whose back was against the wall,'' says a Western diplomat. When the West refused to support the Bosnian Army during Serb ''ethnic cleansing'' campaigns starting in 1991, Iran filled the gaps.

That was a favor that Bosnian officials will not soon forget, though they are now scrambling for a middle road - to thank Iran and also appease the West.

Ganic, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., says he understands American ''paranoia'' about Iran, since he was in the US at the time of the hostage crisis. ''Bells were ringing for them every day,'' he recalls. ''I completely understand American worries.... We tell Iran that we will always treasure their help, but build our house according to our needs. We hear the music.... We have always been with America.''

For Western officials, though, such promises are not enough. Contradictory signals from the government have included a visit to Tehran 10 days ago by Prime Minister Hasan Muratovic.

''They recognize the cost to them of what they are doing, and politically it is vast,'' says a senior Western official. ''They should understand that it is not in their interest to have a bunch of Brown Shirts running around. You have people outside the law ... engaged in training and all kinds of nefarious activities. They are out of control.'' He adds that ''the Bosnians have done nothing [to solve the problem] that has even broken the surface of the water.''

Immediately at stake is the US program to help the Muslim Army defend itself from any future Serb aggression. Diplomats will gather in Turkey this week to find cash and support for the operation, but officials say creating such a level playing field in the Balkans is already proving ''problematic.''

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