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NATO leaders meeting in Turkey this week are expected to discuss ending the alliance’s nine-year peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina and to look for ways to assist a planned follow-on European Union force.

Representatives from 26 NATO countries will hold a two-day summit in Istanbul starting Tuesday. Talks to end its Stabilization Force mission are on the agenda, NATO officials said.

NATO leaders could come to a decision to announce the “end of the SFOR mission in Bosnia by the end of 2004,” said NATO spokesman James Appathurai.

In a video statement on the NATO Web site, Appathurai also said the alliance will discuss its continuing role in supporting Bosnia’s defense reforms and supporting efforts to catch war criminals, while addressing what assistance NATO can provide to an EU mission.

“This will be one area they will certainly tackle,” he said.

EU planners are anticipating NATO’s decision to end SFOR, said Javier Solana, the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

“Thereafter, the European Union would lead a military operation making use of the agreed co-operation framework between the EU and NATO,” Solana said.

The handover has been on the horizon for a while.

Interest from the EU began as early as December 2002, Solana said. NATO eventually announced a reduction from 12,000 troops to roughly 7,000 by June, setting the stage for SFOR’s final chapter.

While formal decisions have yet to be announced, U.S. and European military planners have spent months creating contingency plans, anticipating NATO’s likely withdrawal and an EU takeover. A British general based in Sarajevo will likely lead the EU force of roughly 7,000 troops, while operational control will fall under NATO’s deputy commander at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium, the EU official said.

“The U.K. has offered to command the mission for up to one year,” said Charles Morton, a spokesman for the British Ministry of Defense.

EU ministers approved the concept for the follow-on force in May, but planning continues, said an EU official speaking on the condition of anonymity. The force would work closely with other EU initiatives in Bosnia, to include foreign aid, police and diplomatic efforts, he said.

Before the EU renders a formal decision, NATO must announce its withdrawal. The EU also requires a mandate from the U.N. Security Council before moving ahead.

Still, any solid plans hinge on the outcome of NATO discussions in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, NATO will establish a regional headquarters in Sarajevo. Commanded by a U.S. general, the 200-strong NATO team will continue assisting Bosnia with defense reforms and monitor progress on local efforts to detain war criminals, Appathurai said.

What is unclear is how many U.S. troops will remain in Bosnia as part of NATO or under the EU umbrella. For years, the U.S. government insisted that it would only leave Bosnia when its NATO partners pulled out. But in this case, most of the European troops will simply slip off their NATO hats and don EU ones.

Currently, America maintains a token force of 800 servicemembers, mostly from the National Guard, at Eagle Base outside Tuzla.

Under the Berlin Plus agreement — a package of agreements between NATO and EU, based on conclusions of the NATO Washington Summit in 2003 — U.S. troops could serve as part of NATO’s loaned assets to the EU force. Or the EU could invite the United States to take part in its mission.

Last autumn, as NATO announced reductions and suggested SFOR’s end, Gen. James Jones, commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Europe, ordered his U.S. European Command staff to get cracking on the U.S. military’s role, said Navy Cmdr. Van Badzik, one of the group’s senior staff members.

The Balkans working group, based at EUCOM’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, was first tasked to handle the drawdown to a deterrent force by June, Badzik said.

When discussing the U.S. commitment to any future force, or the United States’ retaining its bases in Bosnia, Badzik would only say “all options are open.”

The Army’s largest camp, Eagle Base, is set on a former Yugoslav airfield outside Tuzla.

Using labor contracted through KBR, the military turned muddy streets and communist-style barracks into a premier U.S. garrison, complete with fast-food restaurants, shops and parks.

The Heidelberg, Germany-based U.S. Army Europe headquarters is responsible for U.S. bases in Bosnia. Subject matter experts from the command’s operations staff declined to be interviewed, USAREUR public affairs officers said.

Several things could happen to Eagle Base, Badzik said.

The United States could retain the base, and use its strategic airfield for future missions. It could become part of the planned EU force or be returned to the Bosnian government.

“All those things are being looked at,” Badzik said. “These decisions are being made at extremely high levels.”

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