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Are we back in Vietnam?

Saturday, May 15, 1999

By Dennis Roddy

WASHINGTON, May 15 -- The Pentagon announced yesterday that 12,000 American ground troops will be deployed to strife-torn Kosovo as part of a NATO peacekeeping force.

A Defense spokesman said the 14,000 troops would be home by July 4.

"There's no reason to keep 16,000 Americans away from our shores any later than Labor Day," said the spokesman.

President Clinton yesterday said the deployment of the 17,000 troops is "strictly temporary."

"I know we are asking a great deal from these 20,000 soldiers and their families. We believe Kosovo and Greece are sufficiently stable now to send our soldiers," Clinton said. The president also announced plans to join the troops for dinner on Thanksgiving.

While many of the soldiers already are stationed at U.S. bases in Germany and in Bosnia, the balance of the 25,000 will likely deploy from Dover Air Force base in Delaware and will return from Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia by Christmas.

On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders said they would hold the administration to a fixed date for a total withdrawal. One Republican leader said that if the 30,000 troops "are there one day past New Year," Congress will cut off funding.

"We're not putting up a half-billion dollars without a deadline," said one Republican leader, sporting a red heart-shaped button symbolizing the party's commitment to have the ground troops back home by Valentine's Day.

"We're not going to authorize one cent past $750 million."

Vice President Al Gore yesterday said he understands the concern of the families of the 35,000 men and women "who will be asked to spend Easter away from home and family. We do not take this step lightly and do not intend to commit 40,000 of our sons and daughters and reintroduce the military draft without having a clear exit strategy."

Word that the 45,000 troops were due for temporary deployment followed last week's reports that the Pentagon sought bids from American and British firms for the construction of a shopping mall near the Kosovo capital, Pristina.

The president has also asked Congress to approve a change in election laws that would allow troops to vote in party presidential caucuses in home states that do not have ballot primaries.

"To potentially disenfranchise 50,000 American men and women because they will be away for a few years is unfair and cuts at the heart of the democratic process," the president told the chairmen of the Senate and House governmental affairs committees.

The Army yesterday began issuing Serbian, Albanian, and Turkish phrase books to soldiers slated for the temporary deployment.

Defense Secretary William Cohen, attending the opening of a new Major League Baseball stadium in Sarajevo, said he was gratified at the pull-out guarantee.

The administration also renewed its pledge to withdraw remaining American troops in Bosnia by the end of this year. Originally, they were to be home by Christmas 1995, but an unforeseeable spread in the Yugoslav conflict from Bosnia to Kosovo complicated plans, the Pentagon said.

"With their own defenses now weakened and weapons supplies choked off, the Serbs would never take on 65,000 U.S. forces," Cohen said. "Clearly, a further widening of the Yugoslav conflict has been prevented because the administration has shown, once again, that it can keep its word."

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