For some time now, U.S. officials have been pressing Bosnian government officials to dismiss Bakir Alispahic, head of a shadowy security agency with ties to secret training camps staffed by Iranian-backed Muslim "freedom fighters."
But in an interview today, Alispahic said he has no intention of leaving his post as director of the Bosnian Agency for Investigation and Documentation. He lashed out at U.S. demands that his agency be closed and called the U.S. attempt to limit Iranian influence in Bosnia "very silly."
The remarks by Alispahic, a 39-year-old war hero who is considered one of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic's top aides, offered a glimpse of a side of the Bosnian government that is rarely seen. Some elements within the government welcome Bosnia's developing relationship with Iran and resent U.S. attempts to rid Bosnia of Iranian influence.
In the interview, conducted in a quiet office in the heart of the Ministry of Interior, Alispahic accused the U.S. government of trying to establish a client state in the Balkans to block the growing influence of Iran in this mostly Muslim land.
"Bosnia is probably the only country where the interests of the United States and Iran collide," he said. "There is an American idea to remove Iranian influence here. This is what they are trying to do by attacking me."
Alispahic confirmed that his organization ran a site near the town of Fojnica that NATO forces raided on Feb. 15 and called a terrorist training camp. Furthermore, he contended that Izetbegovic knew about the camp -- despite reportedly having denied any knowledge of it in a phone conversation with NATO Secretary General Javier Solana on the morning before the raid.
U.S., Turkish and other officials are set to meet in the Turkish capital Friday to discuss a multimillion-dollar plan to equip and train Bosnia's army. U.S. officials have said Alispahic's removal from his post and the shutdown of his security agency are among the conditions for starting the assistance.
Alispahic's criticism of U.S. policy in Bosnia underscored his enduring influence on the government of Izetbegovic, who left the hospital today for the first time since he was admitted with heart trouble late last month. Some officials have alleged that Alispahic's durability illustrates the growing influence of Iran on Bosnia's internal affairs -- although Alispahic disputed contentions from some Western diplomats that he is "Iran's man" in Bosnia. Others see Alispahic's continued presence as a sign that Izetbegovic is unsure whether he can trust the West to support his country -- after years of empty promises from Washington and other Western capitals.
"It is a tragicomedy that a big and serious country like the United States makes so much noise out of this," Alispahic said about U.S. concerns over Bosnia's relations with Iran. He called U.S. actions in Bosnia "very silly" and characterized NATO's raid on the training center as "in bad taste."
Alispahic added that he was "insulted" by American attempts to remove him from his post and called the U.S. ultimatum "an unjust intervention in the internal affairs of our state."
During a summit in Rome last month, U.S. officials demanded that Alispahic and his deputy, Nedzad Ugljen, be ousted from their posts. American officials said they demanded Alispahic's removal following the NATO raid on the Fojnica training camp.
In the raid, NATO officers captured three men from the Iranian Ministry of Interior, along with numerous weapons and explosive devices, including booby-trapped toys and plastic ice cream cones.
NATO officials have said the presence of the camp angered them for two reasons. The first is that under the Dayton peace accords, all foreign forces were supposed to have left Bosnia by Jan. 19. The second is that, according to NATO officials, the camp was a terrorist training center -- an allegation that Alispahic denied.
U.S. officials have said the Bosnian government's failure to remove Alispahic marked one of the most serious "bumps in the road" in the process of implementing peace in Bosnia. In an interview last week, Bosnia's acting president, Ejup Ganic, said no personnel changes had been made. Today, Alispahic appeared to be firmly in control of his agency.
U.S. officials have consistently avoided blaming Izetbegovic for allowing the camps to remain in Bosnia past the Dayton deadline and have sought to focus the responsibility on Alispahic instead. But Alispahic's assertion that Izetbegovic knew about the camps complicates the situation. A spokesman for Izetbegovic rejected a request to interview the president.
The Agency for Investigation and Documentation was set up by an act of Bosnia's collective presidency on Jan. 12 and is alleged by critics to be a violation of the Dayton accords. According to Alispahic, the organization has responsibility for investigating and capturing war criminals, protecting Bosnia's constitution, and fighting terrorism, international crime and drug trafficking.
But under the Dayton agreement, Bosnia's weak collective presidency does not have the power to undertake police functions. Those duties, in this case, would be the responsibility of the federation of Muslims and Croats that the accord tasks with running the non-Serb half of the country.
Kresimir Zubak, president of the federation and a Croat, contended in an interview that he has no power over Alispahic's agency and that protests about its establishment have gone unheeded.
"We can only assume that it is a secret organization set up to help Izetbegovic's political party and not the state," he said. "It is a throwback to our Communist past."
In the interview, Alispahic, who belongs to Izetbegovic's Party of Democratic Action, denied that the agency is "some kind of political police."
"That simply is not true," he said.