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An uneasy tolerance of civilian casualties

Opinion may shift with mistakes such as the bombing of an embassy in

Sanja Sinobad is worried about her relatives back in Belgrade, some of whom live just a block away from the government television station fatally bombed by NATO last month.

She's been running up $600 monthly telephone bills as she constantly checks whether family members have been harmed by NATO's continuing air campaign.

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But this Yugoslav native, now a US citizen living in a Washington suburb, is also troubled that her American neighbors don't seem to care whether errant NATO bombs or missiles strike civilian targets.

"[Civilians] have done nothing wrong," Ms. Sinobad laments.

Perhaps - but that does not seem to make much difference to Western publics outraged by the misery of ethnic Albanian refugees ousted from their Kosovo homes by Serb "ethnic cleansing."

Military experts say that one of the most surprising aspects of the Kosovo crisis has been the indifference of public opinion to what they euphemistically call "collateral damage."

Pictures of NATO-bombed trains, houses, and hospitals may yet swing the public - especially in light of one of its most problematic mistakes yet.

NATO is scrambling after Saturday's accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, which killed at least three people and injured dozens of others inside.

For two days, thousands of anti-NATO protesters have thrown rocks, pushed over cars, and burned American flags in front of US embassies and consulates in China.

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Shortly before the accidental bombing (NATO was trying to hit the Federal Directory for the Supply and Procurement in Belgrade), an ABC/Washington Post poll found that 78 percent of respondents judged Yugoslav civilian deaths "unavoidable accidents of war."

"I call it an uneasy tolerance of what the administration is doing," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the CATO Institute in Washington. "I suspect raids could go on for another six weeks without opinion changing, providing there are no American casualties."

Speaking to American servicemen and women at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, President Clinton made it clear that the American public should be aware of the risks, pointing to the two crew members killed when their Apache helicopter crashed during a nighttime training mission in Albania last week.

Mr. Clinton also acknowledged the impact NATO bombing is having on the civilian population. "We have no quarrel with the Serb people. I say that again, we do not want to be guilty of the sin we stand against," he said.

Both sides accountable

United Nations war-crime investigators who insist they have jurisdiction over the bombing want to make sure NATO is not guilty of those sins either. Chief prosecutor Louis Arbour has pointed out that the same rules against atrocities apply to both sides.

Belgrade says the bombings have claimed 1,200 lives, and 300 schools have been hit.

NATO officials insist any damage or loss of civilian life has been the accidental collateral damage that inevitably occurs in the course of 19 member nations conducting nearly 15,000 sorties against a hostile enemy.

"They are the unintended consequences of this, and I think it will stay in that category" when it comes to understanding American public opinion, says Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.

"I think the impact of the atrocities by Serbs against Kosovars is still an overwhelming one, and people will look, for a time at least, at these accidents as accidents," Mr. Kohut adds

Escalating cost

Americans generally seem to be ahead of Congress on the issue, since lawmakers are focused, to a large extent, on cost issues.

The war is becoming a multibillion-dollar intrusion, crowding their pet budget projects. Also, from a congressional point of view, the war represents a long-term conflict destined to escalate and involve ground troops.

"The uneasiness in Congress is greater already than the uneasiness with the public at large," Carpenter says.

Despite the general support for the air campaign, there are detractors.

"I think this whole thing can backfire," says Richard Shultz, director of international security studies at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "As we pick more and more targets that hurt average people, and I don't care how you dress it up, we are also shutting down hospitals and the daily lives of individuals."

Avoiding civilian targets

While Mr. Shultz is not antiwar and believes President Slobodan Milosevic should be held accountable, he says, targeting should avoid the widening impact on civilians.

"It's like Operation Rolling Thunder [in Vietnam], where we ran out of targets," he adds.

Despite the harsh nature of NATO's strategy of turning off the power to Belgrade in a bid to pressure Milosevic's followers, even bombing critics agree the strategy could work.

Back in her Washington suburb, Sinobad says, "I'm sure eventually the people will turn against him."

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