US Plans to Retool Bosnia Army May Hit Ethnic Splits

WHEN Admir Jahic joined the Bosnian Army after war erupted in 1992, he had only a shotgun to fight with. Now the young soldier could be in line to learn how to fly a US F-16.

Lieutenant Jahic is one of three Bosnian Muslims applying to the US Air Force Academy as part of a Clinton administration program to equip and train the military of Bosnia's new Muslim-Croat Federation. ''I think it is the best way to become a great pilot,'' Jahic says. ''I liked 'Top Gun,' because it shows the capability of a young man for combat.''

The arm-and-train program is a key part of the Dayton accord, which divided Bosnia into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serbian Republic. It aims to create a power balance between the Federation military and the better-armed Bosnian Serb forces.

Achieving that goal is seen as necessary for the departure of the 60,000 NATO peacekeepers within a one-year time frame.

But as the US gears up the multimillion-dollar program, the future shape of the Army it will help build is far from clear.

Muslim and Croat leaders say they want a force free of politics. But some are laying the ground for a politicized Army divided along ethnic and religious lines.

Since a military's doctrine and makeup often reflect the society it protects, the Federation Army's uncertain future holds deep implications for the military aid program and success of the Dayton accord.

US officials say the program will teach democratic values and other lessons that can help bridge the animosities that persist from Muslim-Croat fighting in 1993-94 and shape a US-style Army that in time might even be considered for NATO membership.

But the program could also end up providing modern weapons and top-notch combat skills to an Army with only a veneer of unity. Many top Muslim and Croat officers are members of the Federation's ruling nationalist parties and, as during the days of Communist rule, might serve their political masters and not the constitution. Therein could lie the seeds of new strife.

''We could be creating units who are not loyal to citizens or loyal to the state, but loyal to the party and loyal to the ethnic group,'' says Janos Bugajski of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. ''We could be going back to square 1, except with much more capable forces and dangerous firepower.''

US officials warn that if Muslim or Croat leaders resist the arm-and-train program's Western-style military doctrines, it could be terminated.

''The training program ... will talk about the role of a military in a democratic society,'' a US official says. ''If they want a military that is competent, they are going to have to pay attention to what we are offering.''

US officials are also wary about the extent to which foreign Muslim radicals, most of whom are believed to have left Bosnia, have spread radical Islam within the overwhelmingly Muslim Bosnian Army.

This issue is embodied in Brig. Dzemal Merdan, the Bosnian Army chief of training, a position that involves him closely in the US program. He was also reportedly the Bosnian Army's liaison with foreign Islamic fighters.

In an interview, Brigadier Merdan stressed his desire for a Western-style Army divorced from politics and religion. But his assertion contrasts sharply with two small flags on his bookshelf: One is a banner of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Muslim nationalist party of President Alija Izetbegovic; the other is an Iranian flag that has a picture of the late Ayatollah Khomeini pinned to it.

Furthermore, Merdan says he sees nothing wrong with an ethnically compartmented Army in which there could be ''a Muslim brigade, a Croat brigade, and a Serb brigade as long as they fight for one Bosnia.''

In addition to arms-control measures, the US-led program will provide the Bosnian Army with weapons and skills it lacks. In a $400,000 study last year, a Pentagon consultant found the Bosnian Army needed just under $1 billion worth of equipment.

The Clinton administration is now soliciting US allies, including Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, to join it in donating the weapons. It is also seeking funds the Bosnian government is expected to use to contract retired US military officers to oversee the training effort.

Two armies collide

The Federation Army is to be formed from a merger of the Bosnian Army and the Croatian Defense Council, the Bosnian Croat militia (HVO), which was well-armed, trained, and financed by neighboring Croatia.

The process began after the US in March 1994 brokered an end to fighting between the two. But despite US pressure, they have yet to form a single defense ministry. And they insist on a high command with two chief commanders, one Muslim and one Croat.

It remains unclear how that framework will accommodate Serbs, who stayed loyal to the Muslim-led Sarajevo government. Encouraged by the government's claim to support Bosnia's traditional multiethnic ethos, hundreds of Serbs fought in the Bosnian Army to thwart their rebel kins' attempt to conquer an ethnically pure state.

Now, however, Serbs have reportedly been purged from the commands of six of the Bosnian Army's seven corps.

Contrary to Western militaries, the HVO and Bosnian Army officer corps are highly politicized. The HVO began as the militia of the Bosnian chapter of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, and its high command remains a creature of his defense ministry.

While Mr. Tudjman insists that he backs an integrated Federation Army, he has done little to erase key obstacles, including removing the Bosnian HDZ chief, Dario Kordic, who has been indicted by the UN War Crimes Tribunal in connection with a 1993 massacre of Muslims.

Until recently, the HVO was considered the main hindrance to integration. But the Bosnian Army is now the focus of serious questions. These include the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism and Muslim nationalism among a soldiery that after withstanding almost four years of aggression and atrocities distrusts its former Serb and Croat neighbors and the Christian West.

''Most of our soldiers and officers fought for a democratic, civic society. Others fought for an Islamic society,'' says Brig. Selmo Cikotic, the Bosnian military attache in Washington: But, he adds: ''We want the United States to influence the development of our Army. We did not ask Iran to help us.''

Another form of 'ethnic cleansing'

Another problem, say Western diplomats and some officers, is an effort by the Muslim SDA Party to consolidate its grip on the Bosnian Army officer corps to secure postwar political power. The Bosnian Army's top ranks are packed with SDA members, and loyalty to the party and profession to Islam are overtaking competence as measures for promotions.

Last month, three of the most successful Muslim generals joined the SDA in what some experts saw as a move by the party to secure votes in elections later this year.

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