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U.S. PEACE MISSION IN BOSNIA SEEMS TO BE LOSING MOMENTUM

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LIKE OTHER ENVOYS before him, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke is finding that it takes more than a good peace plan to end Bosnia's war.

He has to get the warring parties to stop fighting long enough to discuss it. And his job is doubly difficult because Washington is perceived to have taken sides.Holbrooke's European predecessors couldn't stop the fighting when the Serbs were winning. They saw no reason to give up their battlefield gains simply because the United Nations or the European Union wanted them to cede land to the Muslims and Croats.

Now it's the Muslims and Croats who balk at a cease-fire. Having gained the upper hand with the help of NATO air-strikes, they want to press their military advantage. And they are confident enough of American support to know they will not be bombed like the Serbs.

So confident are the Muslims, in fact, that they have taken to doing what so many of our allies do: criticize their benefactor.

Holbrooke has ulterior motives, the Muslims say. His only interest in Bosnia is to remove an issue that might hurt President Clinton's re-election campaign - so Holbrooke is "sidestepping" the most important areas of disagreement to secure a speedy settlement.

This, of course, is hogwash. Holbrooke is not sidestepping anything. It is the Croats and Muslims who are sidestepping their previous commitments to stop fighting and negotiate in good faith - and it would make Holbrooke's job a lot easier if NATO bombers were allowed to make them think twice about their re-cal-ci-trance.

The bombing brought the Serbs to the negotiating table, making Holbrooke's shuttle diplomacy seem more successful than it really was. But it also encouraged the Muslims and Croats to go on the offensive, making it more difficult to implement the second phase of the peace plan.

Holbrooke has secured the agreement of politicians from all three sides to split Bosnia into a Serb and a Muslim-Croat entity, united under some form of central government. But a cease-fire is required to work out the specifics of power-sharing. As usual, the generals aren't cooperating.

If, and when, a final agreement is signed, the Western allies have promised to field a 50,000-man "peace implementation force" under NATO's command. It will remain in Bosnia for 12 months before being replaced by more traditional U.N. peacekeepers.

Although everyone wants to avoid what they call "mission creep," Holbrooke's mission is losing momentum.