In Case of NATO Failure, Bosnians Keep a Backup: Imported Islamic Fighters

The Bosnian government has learned from its desperate position during the war that security and force are more important than Western allies for the survival of a Muslim state here.

While the United States and its Western allies dithered over whether and how to intervene, Islamic freedom fighters helped sneak arms into Bosnia and fought beside the Muslim-led Bosnian government Army. The Clinton administration, unwilling to overrule its European allies and lift an arms embargo that kept Bosnia from arming itself against Serb aggression and ethnic cleansing, looked the other way when Iran and Malaysia delivered weapons to Bosnia.

The US eventually brokered the Dayton peace accords, effectively ending the war, but giving the Bosnian Serbs 49 percent of Bosnia's territory. Bosnia has never recovered its trust of the West.

Since the war ended last year, the Bosnian government has been harboring a small group of militants - it says there are about 60, others say there could be 200 - as insurance against the Western allies abandoning Bosnia in the future.

Because of the militants' suspected ties to Iran, the US and Western allies decry their presence. But the Bosnian government asserts that it owes a debt to these fighters who helped them when the West refused. It points out that these men have married Bosnian women, so it cannot expel them.

The protected presence of foreign Islamic forces in Bosnia, and the Bosnian government's demonstrated willingness to cooperate with hard-line Islamic states, indicates that Bosnia could become what the West has feared - a radical Islamic state in Europe - even though it may have helped create such a state by being a shaky ally.

'They've been told to behave'

"If the US stops being a reliable ally, ... [Bosnia] will have its ... friends from Iran more than happy to help, with money, equipment, soldiers," says a UN Civil Affairs officer in Sarajevo. "These Islamic militants do what a professional army doesn't do: They assassinate, they terrorize, they manipulate."

The Bosnian government downplays any threat these forces pose to NATO troops or Americans here. "It is in the Bosnian government's interest for NATO to remain in Bosnia," says Mirza Hajric of the Bosnian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Any action by freedom fighters against NATO forces here is against our interests. They have been told to behave."

Still, US officials say the presence of the Islamic freedom fighters is endangering a $500 million US program to help equip and strengthen the Bosnian Muslim-Croat Federation defense forces.

When the US insisted, Bosnia promised to get all foreign forces out before American weapons were delivered. But as the first shipment of weapons arrived at Sarajevo airport in August, the US Embassy in Sarajevo issued a warning to American citizens that radicals had increased their video surveillance of NATO facilities there, perhaps readying for an attack.

Equip-and-train at stake

"If [NATO] sees these forces, why don't they arrest them?" Mr. Hajric says. Observers say the US avoids such arrests, lest it publicize the militants' presence and force a halt to the equip-and-train program.

But senior Western officials warn that the Bosnian government is playing a sophisticated game of using the presence of Islamic militants here as a way of persuading the West to stay on in Bosnia.

A diplomat with the UN High Representative's office says it is a game that Bosnia is sure to lose. While the Bosnian government has not sought to move closer to the orbit of radical Islam, says UN official Michael Steiner, these forces have gained enough of a foothold to turn the relatively tolerant Bosnian government into a hard-line Islamic one. If these forces gain influence, Mr. Steiner says, "Europe would have a very serious problem here."

For its part, the Bosnian government says it rejects radical Islam, but simply wants Muslims to enjoy the same rights and protections as Croats and Serbs. "We are not creating an Islamic state here," Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic said last week. "There are women with scarfs but in short skirts as well. We want a normal state where Islam as well will have freedom."

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