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FORTUNES OF WAR TRIM U.S. RISKS

Despite Western setbacks and miscalculations, the United States suddenly finds its risks in Bosnia-Herzegovina greatly reduced.

The dangers of the Balkans remain high, as the deaths Saturday of three U.S. diplomats on a rain-soaked mountain road near Sarajevo remind. But Pentagon planners say that the extrication of 24,000 U.N. forces from Bosnia would require far fewer troops for only a portion of the time previously estimated. Similarly, the size and risks of any peacekeeping operation could be smaller than had been thought.This all could have significant political consequences for 1996, since Clinton administration officials say they will probably send U.S. troops to Bosnia next year either to help withdraw the U.N. troops or to enforce a peace plan.

A smaller operation with more manageable risks would probably pose less of a political liability for President Clinton during his re-election campaign, when his handling of the lingering crisis in Bosnia is likely to be an issue.

Events of the past month, including the West's concession of two Muslim enclaves in Bosnia to Bosnian Serb rebels and a successful Croatian offensive that defied Pentagon predictions, have unexpectedly opened new diplomatic oppor-tun-i-ties and foreclosed some difficult military missions.

"While losing the enclaves has been unfortunate for Bosnia, it's been great for us," said a senior administration official.

At the same time, any lessening of the military risks could undermine one of the administration's central arguments for not flouting the arms embargo against the Bosnian government.

Defense Secretary William Perry has said that breaking the embargo would set off the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers, commit thousands of American troops to help them leave, and be "risky, costly and shameful."

With a resurgent Bosnian army joined by its Croatian ally now standing up to rebel Serbian forces and pushing them back in some areas, and fewer United States troops needed to withdraw less vulnerable peacekeepers, Perry's warning may not be so dire.

Administration officials say there are now three likely scenarios the Balkans crisis could follow:

- The latest U.S. peace plan fails, but the U.N. peacekeeping force, dominated by Britain and France, stays for another winter.

- The negotiations fail and the United Nations pulls out. Without a firm peace plan, there is concern in Washington that Britain and France will decide by mid-September to leave.

- The warring parties accept an American-brokered peace plan, and a NATO force roughly the size of the withdrawal force moves in to police the plan.

Clinton has promised to send as many as 25,000 U.S. soldiers for a 70,000-member NATO force to extricate the U.N. peacekeepers spread out over Bosnia. The Pentagon said the operation could take 22 months to complete. As many as 10,000 of those United States troops could actually go into Bosnia itself, with the rest handling logistics in Croatia or remaining in reserve.

But events of the past month have radically altered the Balkans map, and with it the risks and responsibilities for U.S. forces.

"It's fair to say that the number of troops that might need to be evacuated from potentially hostile areas has been reduced by at least two-thirds," said a senior administration official.

Perry and Gen. John Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are arguing to keep as robust a force as possible to deal with all possible contingencies with the lowest casualties.

But other State Department and White House officials are trying to pare the force down to make it more palatable to Congress.

Adm. Leighton Smith, commander of NATO forces in southern Europe, has told his senior planners to submit revised draft withdrawal plans by this week. He also is expected to meet this week with senior U.S. commanders from the various branches of the armed services who would take part in a withdrawal or peacekeeping plan.