Senate defies Clinton by voting to end arms ban

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The Senate last night delivered President Bill Clinton a stinging foreign policy rebuke with a clear, bipartisan vote to lift the existing UN arms embargo on Bosnia, defying a torrent of warnings from the administration that the step would only suck America deeper into the Balkan quagmire.

The measure, sponsored by Bob Dole, the Republican majority leader, and Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat, was approved on a vote of 69 to 29, two votes more than the two-thirds majority required to override a certain veto from Mr Clinton.

Mr Clinton's press secretary, Mike McCurry, said Congress would bear the responsibility for a "dreadful decision" if the resolution became law.

Long beforehand, however, it was clear the amendment had support across a wide spectrum, embracing virtually every Republican and many Democrats from both the liberal and moderate wings of the party. For every one of them, the common denominator is frustration at the West's inability either to halt the fighting or properly to protect the Muslim enclaves.

"This is not a partisan discussion," Mr Dole said. "It's about whether some small country that's been ravaged on all sides, pillaged, women raped, children killed, has any rights in this world." Implementation of the measure, however, would automatically provoke a pull-out by Britain and France of their peace-keeping contingents from Bosnia.

The bitter mood has only intensified since the international conference in London last Friday. The meeting was advertised as a show of determination by the allies but it patently failed to resolve the differences between them.

"The intended roar has turned into just a growl," said Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat.

Faced with what would be a resounding vote of no confidence in its conduct of foreign policy, the White House had retreated into acceptance of the inevitable, hoping that at least 34 of the 100 senators, the minimum needed to sustain a presidential veto, would vote against lifting the embargo.

But Mr Dole, the prime architect of the "Bosnia Self- Defence Amendment", tailored the wording to command the widest support. The embargo would only be removed after the withdrawal of the peace-keeping force - estimated by the Pentagon to take up to 22 weeks - or 12 weeks after a formal request from the Sarajevo government. Furthermore, Mr Clinton would be able to order further 30-day delays if he considered them necessary.

In vain have the President and his top advisers, including the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and the Defense Secretary, William Perry, warned that the demise of the embargo might only "Americanise" the conflict, trigger a renewed Serb offensive and intensify the fighting. Mr Dole's withering reply on the Senate floor was simply: "I thought there was fighting already.''

The vote may make little practical difference in the short term. The House of Representatives, where feeling against the embargo is, if anything, stronger than in the Senate, must pass a similar measure. Nothing would arrive on the President's desk until tomorrow, and both sides are already hinting they are prepared to work towards a compromise more acceptable to the European allies.

But there is no disguising the blow to Mr Clinton. Worst of all, the vote brings closer what he most wants to avoid: the involvement of US ground forces in Bosnia. To help to extricate the UN contingent, Washington has promised 25,000 US troops.