When the United States and its peacekeeping partners sent troops into Bosnia in January 1996, they were adamant that the force would not be dragged into political feuds ignited by the accords that ended almost four years of ethnic slaughter.
But that is exactly what has happened.
By wresting control of police stations in this northwestern city this week on behalf of Biljana Plavsic, president of the half of Bosnia awarded to the Bosnian Serbs by the Dayton peace plan, the NATO-led force has become directly involved in an escalating Bosnian Serb power struggle.
The intervention raises the stakes in a gamble by the US and its allies that Mrs. Plavsic can sideline Radovan Karadzic. Mr. Karadzic, a former Bosnian Serb president and indicted war-crimes suspect, retains a lock on most of the political and economic levers of the Serbian Republic from his stronghold in Pale, near Sarajevo.
But it is a gamble fraught with uncertain consequences for the peace process and for Clinton administration diplomacy.
"The international communityhas to make some very careful decisions," says a Western official.
Should Plavsic prevail, US officials hope she will fulfill pledges to end the Bosnian Serb intransigence that has obstructed provisions of the 1995 Dayton accords designed to restore a semblance of a united Bosnian state. Such progress could allow President Clinton to meet congressional demands that the NATO operation end by a July 1998 deadline, sending 8,000 US troops home.
But the strategy could backfire should Plavsic fail to wrest power from Mr. Karadzic and his allies, especially Momcilo Krajisnik, a Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia's multiethnic federal presidency. In retaliation, they could harden their resistance to the peace plan or renounce it entirely.
Such a development could force the 30,000 troops in the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) to stay beyond next July or face the prospect of renewed ethnic conflict. It could even lead to new divisions. That would be a blow to US prestige and a personal defeat for Mr. Clinton.
The US and its allies appear to have had little choice but to back Plavsic, as there is scant chance for progress while the Bosnian Serb power struggle persists.
The confrontation began in July, when Plavsic accused Karadzic and his allies of massive corruption. She fired Interior Minister Dragan Kijac, dissolved a Karadzic-controlled parliament, and called new elections for October. But Mr. Kijac refused to resign, and the Bosnian constitutional court ruled her dissolution of parliament illegal.
The US and its allies rushed to bolster Plavsic. Clinton sent Richard Holbrooke, Dayton's architect, back to the region last week. Mr. Holbrooke said after the visit that Karadzic would abide by an agreement to withdraw from politics, and warned that he could be arrested by SFOR and turned over to the UN war-crimes tribunal.
The crisis deepened Sunday when police loyal to Plavsic briefly seized police headquarters in her stronghold of Banja Luka. They seized evidence that pro-Karadzic officers had been bugging Plavsic's office and had coerced a judge into ruling against the dissolution of parliament.
Prompted by the discoveries, which represented breaches of the accords, UN police backed by 350 SFOR troops, 45 armored vehicles, and two helicopters raided the headquarters and four other police facilities Wednesday. They confiscated 2,500 weapons, including assault rifles and rockets. They then turned the headquarters over to commanders loyal to Plavsic. Yesterday, a NATO presence remained near the station.
Additionally, international officials decided to begin weeding out pro-Karadzic elements from the Banja Luka police in the first stage of an overhaul of the force.
That sharpened the inter-Serb feud. Mr. Krajisnik rejected Plavsic's call for elections, urging the police to obey their former commanders. Karadzic-controlled state television accused Plavsic of taking "actions to destabilize the country ... with the final goal of completely destroying it."