US reinforcements considered in KosovoBy ROBERT BURNS
WASHINGTON (February 24, 2000) - NATO's struggle for ethnic calm in northern Kosovo has raised the stakes for U.S. involvement in a peacekeeping mission that has no end in sight.
The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, aboard ships in the Mediterranean, is standing by as potential U.S. reinforcements, although Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Thursday that NATO commanders have not asked for the Marines.
Expanding the U.S. troop presence in Kosovo would raise the risk for a force that has largely escaped casualties.
In Washington and other allied capitals, there is no appetite for a major additional buildup of troops in Kosovo. But NATO feels it cannot let the flare-up of ethnic violence in the city of Mitrovica go unanswered.
Defense Secretary William Cohen has said he expects the Mitrovica problem to be resolved shortly, possibly without U.S. reinforcements. France, whose peacekeepers are in charge of the ethnically divided Mitrovica area, is preparing to send 600 to 700 more troops to the area.
The NATO's chief commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, requested the extra French troops and asked NATO's political authorities for the go-ahead to put about 1,200 other troops on a higher state of alert for possible deployment. Among these other troops are the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.
NATO officials are to meet on the matter Friday at alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
Whether to send Marines is an "open question," White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said Thursday.
"We support the request General Clark has made," Lockhart told reporters. "We take this mission very seriously and we will take the appropriate steps to deter any further violence."
The approximately 5,300 American troops now on peacekeeping duty in Kosovo are in a U.S.-controlled sector in the southeastern part of the Serb province, where the ethnic tension is less intense. While eight Americans have died there since peacekeeping began in June, none of the deaths resulted from hostile action.
At a news conference Thursday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright left open the possibility of more American troops, but noted the United States already has the biggest contingent. For now, it would be up to the Europeans to add troops, she said.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers expressed concern at the prospect of deepening U.S. involvement.
"I'm gravely concerned about the increasing risks to the men and women of our armed forces," said the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner of Virginia. His committee held a two-hour closed door briefing with top Pentagon officials Wednesday.
The Senate's top Democrat, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, said that while President Clinton does not need formal congressional approval to send more troops to Kovoso, "I think Congress needs to be involved in terms of oversight."
U.S. officials say the best solution would be to rapidly increase the number of trained international police for Kosovo because military peacekeepers are not well suited for a criminal justice role.
"We must recognize that old models of peacekeeping don't also meet current challenges," Albright said. She said Clinton had ordered the State Department to create an office responsible for issues associated with U.S. participation in the criminal justice aspects of peace operations.
Meantime, a contingent of U.S. Marines aboard ships in the Mediterranean is on standby as potential reinforcements.
If called upon, the Marines most likely would be used in a role similar to that of an airborne Army group that spent several days in Mitrovica this week.
In a surprise raid Wednesday, about 350 members of the Army's 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment swept through an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Mitrovica, searching house-to-house. They arrested eight people and seized rifles and other weapons.
It was the first time the Americans had been on the Serb-dominated side of Mitrovica since they and German forces were driven away Sunday by stone-throwing Serbs during a weapons search.
Clark, the NATO commander, has said that in the months since the alliance began monitoring an uneasy peace in Kosovo last June, too many of the allies have allowed their troop totals to shrink. Overall, the peacekeeping force in Kosovo has dropped from a peak of roughly 50,000 to about 37,000 now.
The U.S. contingent has fallen from a peak of about 7,000 to 5,300. An additional 1,100 U.S. support troops are in nearby Macedonia.