Britain starts EU drawdown in Bosnia

Over the din of a forklift trundling past and drilling echoing off the concrete floor of this cavernous metal factory turned military base, a dozen Welsh Guards are loading boxes onto a truck, destined for Britain.

It's closing time here at the Metal Factory Base in northern Bosnia. Up until several months ago, it was one of three such large bases in Bosnia, a country about the size of West Virginia. Over the course of the next week, Britain's Welsh Guards are pulling out as part of the European Union's peacekeeping reductions in Bosnia, a dozen years after the 1992-1995 war ended.

The rationale for the drawdown, says Maj. Ali Spry, the Guards' intelligence officer, is that the remaining work to be done in Bosnia – whether it's finding illegal weapons or helping hunt down PIFWCs (military-speak for Persons Indicted For War Crimes) – now requires a good local police force, rather than the brute force of the military.

"For going after the PIFWC support network, you need financial experts and bank experts – you don't need 300 hairy Welshmen kicking in doors," he says.

The European Union (EU), which took over peacekeeping here from NATO in 2004, decided last month to reduce its troop presence from around 6,000 to 2,500. Britain is pulling out 530 total, 350 of whom are from the Welsh Guards. Germany has announced it will follow Britain's lead, withdrawing its troops from Bosnia as well. In addition, the last US soldiers stationed here left this past winter.

The civilian side of post-war reconstruction, however, is far from finished. While the eventual goal may be membership in the 27-nation EU, reforming the country's fractured police forces and changing the country's constitution must come first.

These sensitive reforms strike at the heart of the debate over what type of country Bosnia should be – the very reason war broke out here in 1992.

And the discussion coincides with the prospect that the nearby UN-run province of Kosovo may receive some type of independence from Serbia.

As that possibility began looking more likely with the release of UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's recommendations last month, the international community decided several weeks ago to keep the doors open on Bosnia's head civilian office, the Office of the High Representative (OHR), until June 2008.

EU pressing for more unity

The EU noted on Wednesday that unless Bosnia's politicians agree to merge the country's ethnically based police forces, the country would not be able to sign an agreement that's the first step on moving closer to the EU – leaving Bosnia behind nearly all of its Balkan neighbors.

What Bosnia's Catholic Croats, Muslims, and Orthodox Serbs need to agree to, according to the EU, is a force that the state government would budget for and pass laws on, and one that would be organized by crime-fighting criteria rather than the boundaries of Bosnia's two ministates.

The police are currently a reflection of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement constitution that left Bosnia divided into two ethnic ministates – the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic – headed by a loose central government that is still largely toothless.

Though the initial push for police reform began in 2004, talks among the parties stalled this week, as the Bosnian Serbs refuse to completely write off their police ministry, and Bosnian Muslim politicians won't accept anything less. EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn, in Sarajevo Thursday, was expected to leave without initialing an agreement with Bosnia, though earlier this week he did so with neighboring Montenegro.

"There was a deal on the table and it was consistent with the EU principles, but, in the end, they didn't agree to it," says OHR second-in-command Raffi Gregorian, an American. "Rehn will come and go and there's no agreement, and that's unfortunate."

Another sticking point on the civilian side – although by no means the only one – is Bosnia's constitution. Bosnia's Serbs favor keeping their own powerful ministate within the country, while Bosnia's Muslims favor a unitary system. Politicians did reach a rare compromise agreement last year, but the proposals – including one to get rid of the three-man presidency – were killed in parliament by the party of a prominent Muslim politician who, having built his political comeback by calling for a unitary system, argued that the proposals did not go far enough.

Kosovo could exacerbate tensions

Despite Bosnia's sharp divisions and the international community's worries that the fate of Kosovo may exacerbate tensions here, the EU military force (EUFOR) says security in Bosnia has improved to the point that it can draw down. The idea is that a multinational battalion will stay at one large base outside Sarajevo, while information on the ground will come from the 40-odd liaison and observation team houses scattered throughout the country.

"Bosnia is by no stretch of the imagination a fixed country," says Metal Factory task force spokesperson Royal Navy Lt. Helen Munro. "But EUFOR is a military force, and the problems are political. If it gets to the point that people are picking up sticks, then that's a military problem."

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