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On the eve of critical negotiations among the warring parties in Bosnia, President Clinton said Tuesday the talks offer the best chance for peace since the war began four years ago. "It may be the last chance we have for a very long time," he said.

The president met with leaders of his national security team before they headed to Dayton, Ohio, where negotiations begin Wednesday at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base."We have come to a defining moment in Bosnia," the president said.

Clinton sought to allay strong reservations in Congress about using American troops to enforce any peace settlement in Bosnia. NATO is the only organization with the strength and track record to enforce the peace, he said, and the United States is the leader of NATO.

"The United States must participate," Clinton said in a brief, nationally broadcast address from the Roosevelt Room. He emphasized that American troops would not be deployed unless there is a peace agreement.

To build support for his policy, Clinton will meet on Wednesday with Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress.

On a roll call of 315-103 the House passed a nonbinding resolution late Monday declaring "there should not be a presumption" that enforcement of a peace agreement "will involve deployment of United States armed forces on the ground in the territory of the Republic of Bosnia."

The resolution doesn't require the president to do anything. Many senators have expressed similar sentiments, but there is no comparable measure awaiting a vote in the Senate.

Reps. Bill Orton, D-Utah, and Enid Waldholtz, R-Utah, voted for the House resolution. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, did not vote.

Clinton said he did not expect the House vote to have any impact on the negotiations in Dayton.

"Only the parties to this terrible conflict can end it," he said. "The world now looks to them to turn the horror of war to the promise of peace."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the vote Monday night "a sad vote" and said it was a message telling the president, "You have not convinced us this is a good policy."

Before leaving for Dayton, U.S. mediator Richard Holbrooke said Monday before the vote that supporters of the House resolution were "doing grave damage to the national interests." He said the negotiations would open "without any assurance of success."

The negotiations will bring together Presidents Slobodan Milo-sevic of Serbia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia. "If Dayton does not succeed, the country will slip back to war," Holbrooke said.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher will meet with the three Balkan leaders Wednesday and outline U.S. objectives. Holbrooke will then take over and present a draft peace treaty and American proposals on a half-dozen critical issues.