- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Ramush Haradinaj, a onetime Kosovo Liberation Army general and now an emerging political leader among the province's Albanian majority, yesterday warned a U.S. military pullout would have dire consequences for the Balkans.

"Without U.S. troops on the ground, there is no real peace in Kosovo," Mr. Haradinaj said in an interview yesterday.

"In many ways, the Kosovo Albanians trust the American troops more than any other forces" in the NATO-dominated multinational peacekeeping force in the Yugoslav province, Mr. Haradinaj said.

During the recent U.S. campaign, aides to President Bush said he wanted to reduce the U.S. military role in Kosovo, in place since the NATO air war in the spring of 1999 that drove out Serbian forces of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

The Bush administration has made clear in recent days that it would consult with its allies before any troop reduction.

Trading in fatigues for business suits, the 32-year-old Mr. Haradinaj led his Alliance for the Future of Kosovo to a third-place finish in municipal elections in Kosovo in October, with 7.7 percent of the vote.

The party of longtime Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, an academic, finished first with 58 percent, and Hashim Thaci, a former colleague of Mr. Haradinaj in the KLA, finished second with 27.3 percent.

Like virtually every prominent Kosovo Albanian leader, Mr. Haradinaj favors independence for Kosovo from Yugoslavia, despite opposition from Belgrade and despite a U.N. resolution that leaves the province's ultimate status purposefully vague.

Foreign ministers of the 15-nation European Union, meeting in Brussels yesterday, sent another signal of support for new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. The ministers in a statement sided with Belgrade against Montenegro, Serbia's tiny sister republic that also has talked of leaving the Yugoslav Federation.

Carl Bildt, the United Nations' Balkans envoy, said the EU statement "very clearly expresses that the international community has no interest in setting up new states in the region."

Mr. Haradinaj argued that his party provided the best vehicle for a political solution to Kosovo, because it welcomed Serbs and other minorities and because it is focusing for now on building the economic, social and political institutions needed for a viable state.

Mr. Thaci is better known abroad, but his Democratic Party of Kosovo is increasingly unpopular because of abuses committed by ex-KLA members in its ranks, Mr. Haradinaj argued. And Mr. Rugova, while still the single most popular Kosovar Albanian leader, has seen his support fall steadily in the aftermath of the 1999 war.

Mr. Rugova "used to have 100 percent support, and now it's 58 percent," Mr. Haradinaj said.

A highly regarded guerrilla leader during the war and deputy commander for a time of the civilian Kosovo Protection Corps after Mr. Milosevic's troops pulled out, Mr. Haradinaj developed close ties with U.S. military and intelligence officials during the conflict.

But he remains a controversial figure in Kosovo and in Europe, where, he concedes, opposition to Kosovo's independence is much stronger than in Washington.

Mr. Haradinaj was injured in a confrontation with Russian peacekeepers last year, and he was wounded again by a grenade in a still-murky incident in July involving a feud with a Kosovar Albanian family from a rival guerrilla organization.

The London-based Guardian newspaper reported in September that U.S. forces helped cover up the July incident and also played down Mr. Haradinaj's links to drug trafficking and organized crime elements that have flourished in the province since the end of the war.

Mr. Haradinaj denied any links to criminal gangs in Kosovo. Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, executive director of the Albanian-American foundation and a spokeswoman for Mr. Haradinaj's party in the United States, said the July grenade attack has been misreported in the Western press.

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