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Thorny job: how to remove heads of state

US has tried to have leaders from Castro to Qaddafi ousted. Now itturns to Milosevic.

It's something with which the US has constantly struggled: trying to speed up a dictator's removal from office.

In the 1960s, it was Fidel Castro of Cuba. In the '80s, it was Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi. In the '90s, it was Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

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Now the US, along with numerous other Western countries, is openly supporting an opposition party trying to depose Slobodan Milosevic, the resilient Yugoslav president and indicted war criminal who is blamed for starting four wars in the Balkans.

If the US-backed Serbian opposition succeeds, democratic coaching will have done what bombs and sanctions could not. But if they fail, the price could be high: a real chance of violence between Serbia and Montenegro - the two remaining Yugoslav republics - with the US caught in the middle.

"The issue of a [Milosevic]-free Serbia is the dominant issue" in the Balkans, says a US administration official. "As long as he's there, we will have problems."

The Serbian opposition coalition - a group of mostly reformed Communists called the Alliance for Change - visited Washington this week and met with high-ranking officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Dr. Albright promised the leaders that the US would lift economic sanctions against Serbia after the republic held "free and fair" elections. The State Department also lent its support to a European Union project sending heating oil to Serbian cities where the opposition is in control.

But despite congratulatory and encouraging statements by Albright, the latest US gambit in Yugoslavia appears to be a last act of desperation rather than part of a continuous strategy. Cracks are already appearing.

Milan Protic, a member of the Serbian delegation, said he was losing hope. He called the smiling in front of the news cameras was "optimism out of despair."

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Furthermore, a person traveling with the group said the Serbian leaders were deeply disappointed not to have gotten more from Albright. Members were hoping for guarantees of more aid and a lifting of sanctions now. It was partially because of the US, the person said, that the alliance had changed its central platform. Rather than calling for the direct ouster of Mr. Milosevic, they now want early elections.

Finally, the opposition leaders face a questionable future when the return to Serbia. The US played a leading role in the NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia last spring, which were launched after the Yugoslav government refused to sign an agreement on the governing of Kosovo. By working with the US, the opposition can be labeled, in the words of Milosevic, "bootlickers."

"The trip by the alliance is out of desperation, because nothing else is working for them," says Eric Witte, program coordinator for the International Crisis Group. "Likewise, the US government is desperate right now."

Lingering dictators

The inability to help knock Milosevic out of power has become a lingering frustration for Clinton administration officials.

The US failure to remove leaders such as Qaddafi and Saddam comes from inconsistent policy, says Patrick Cronin, director of research at the US Institute for Peace. And, Mr. Cronin says, the longer the leader stays in power the more likely he is to find international sympathy and gain acceptance - as has been the case with Qaddafi.

In the 1960s, when the cold war was in full swing, the US and the Soviet Union often dueled to get their men in power and carve out a sphere of influence. One trouble spot was Cuba, where Communist General Castro was gaining a lock on power. During that time, the CIA was said to have made several attempts on Castro's life, which did little more than tarnish the US image.

In 1976 President Gerald Ford issued an executive order banning US government employees from being involved in assassinations, a prohibition expanded on by President Jimmy Carter. But the US was accused of other incidents that some people interpreted as assassination attempts, including a 1986 missile attack on Qaddafi. In Iraq, the US took a different approach. After the Gulf War, it tried to prevent Saddam from making weapons - and to slowly choke him with economic sanctions. But the United Nations is now considering lifting sanctions, and Saddam is thought to be stronger than ever.

Milosevic looks comfortable

As for Milosevic, the Yugoslav strongman appears to have survived the toughest days following his de facto loss of Kosovo. Because he controls the media and most of the money, analysts say democratic elections are impossible while he is in power. He also has used nationalist conflict to boost his power, a tactic he may try with the tiny province of Montenegro. During NATO airstrikes, he was indicted by a war crimes tribunal in The Hague, a move some hoped would lead to his demise. But Milosevic is considered unlikely to turn himself in.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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