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The United States allowed Iranian arms to flow to the Bosnian government because the alternative was to watch it collapse under military pressure from the Bosnian Serbs, former diplomat Richard Holbrooke says.

Holbrooke, the chief U.S. negotiator on Bosnia before he left the administration in February, defended the decision Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee and said the arms flow was not a covert action."There never was a covert action. We never considered one," he said. The intelligence panel is one of several congressional committees trying to determine whether the Clinton administration violated the requirement that Congress be notified of covert activity abroad.

Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state who negotiated last year's peace talks in Dayton, said Bosnia's then-prime minister, Haris Silajdzic, appealed to the administration in 1994 to urge other governments to send arms to his country.

"We never did. Not once. Never," Holbrooke said, although all parties fighting in former Yugoslavia's ethnic wars already were receiving arms in violation of an international embargo decreed by the United Nations.

"It is very important to recognize that there had been supply to the Bosnians and the Croats from outside sources, of which Iran was only one," he said. Holbrooke declined in public to name the others, saying only that some of the speculation was accurate.

Among the countries figuring in such speculation have been Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Germany, Argentina and Singapore.

On the question of whether the administration in the spring of 1994 gave Croatia a "green light" to allow Iranian arms to be shipped through its territory en route to Bosnia, Holbrooke said, "I would not call it a green light, I would call it a policy of not having a policy."

"The `green light' is not my expression," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee chairman. "That is an expression of Ambassador (Peter) Galbraith (U.S. ambassador to Croatia)."

"That's between you and other witnesses, Mr. Chairman," responded Holbrooke.

"No, it's not between me and other witnesses," said Specter.