- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

President Bush said yesterday he would be willing to commit U.S. troops to support a peacekeeping effort in war-torn Liberia, but only if the mission is limited in scope and duration and only after the nation’s leader cedes power and leaves.

“I think everybody understands any commitment we have would be limited in size and limited in tenure. Our job would be to help facilitate an [African] presence, which would then be converted into a U.N. peacekeeping mission,” he said.

Complicating matters, Liberian President Charles Taylor said in a TV interview yesterday that his leaving would require a major nation-building exercise involving thousands of troops and extensive American support.

“I’m looking at anywhere from between 3,000 to 5,000 United States troops, coupled with maybe 5,000 to 10,000 troops from the United Nations,” Mr. Taylor told Fox News. “We’re going to need 10 years of real, on-the-site working with Liberia to get this thing going, so we’re going to need a lot of United States troops.”

While some White House officials said yesterday that they did not expect a decision this week on whether to deploy as many as 2,000 U.S. troops, Mr. Bush’s expressed willingness yesterday appeared to open the door to a joint deployment with troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

“What I’m telling you is that we want to help ECOWAS, it may require troops, but we don’t know how many yet,” Mr. Bush told reporters after a White House meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Some U.N. officials believe a U.S. intervention would require about six months, but U.S. sources say they doubt Mr. Bush would let U.S. troops stay in Liberia that long.

Mr. Bush said he wanted to help enforce a tenuous cease-fire in Liberia, rived by civil war for more than 10 years, but added, “This is conditional on President Taylor leaving. He’s got to leave.”

Mr. Annan, a native of nearby Ghana and a staunch supporter of U.S. intervention in Liberia, said he had struck an agreement with Mr. Bush, whom he had vehemently opposed in the months before the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

“We have more or less agreed to a general approach on the Liberian issue, and I’m very pleased with that,” he said, sitting next to Mr. Bush in the Oval Office. “So the effort that is going on is absolutely worthwhile.”

In his Fox interview yesterday, the Liberian president dismissed as “a joke” a commitment of anything less than 3,000 American troops and a long-term exercise in nation building.

“We are not looking for any short time, Band-Aid approach from the United States. You do not come into a country, drive its president out, and bring a Band-Aid approach to this country,” he said.

“Liberians are not going to accept” a small American commitment for such “a big task,” he told Fox yesterday. “You’ve got to come in here full blast. Not just 500 troops or 1,000.”

Mr. Taylor said the U.S. effort needs to involve “ground troops, Army Corps of Engineers, financial experts, economists, the whole ball of wax.”

“The United States has to do what they ought to do that they have not done over 157 years,” he said, referring to his nation’s founding as a haven for freed American slaves.

Mr. Taylor has phrased his past offers to leave for temporary exile in Nigeria as contingent on the arrival of U.S. peacekeepers to enforce a rebel-government cease-fire.

In his interview yesterday, he pledged to leave Liberia “within days” of ECOWAS forces entering his country, an event he said he hoped would happen this week.

Liberia’s main rebel movement has threatened a “firefight” with any peacekeepers deployed in the country before Mr. Taylor steps down.

Mr. Annan said he expected ECOWAS to send up to 2,500 troops to Liberia first.

“After that, from what I gather, President Taylor will leave Liberia, then the force will be strengthened, hopefully with U.S. participation and additional troops from the West African region,” the U.N. chief said.

“Once the situation is calm and stabilized, the U.S. would leave and the U.N. peacekeepers will carry on the operation,” he told reporters after the meeting, his first with Mr. Bush since Dec. 20 and the U.N. debate over the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

While ECOWAS has requested 2,000 U.S. troops — with Nigeria, the largest member of ECOWAS, calling for as many as 3,500 — Mr. Bush said all necessary information on which to base a decision has not been gathered.

“We don’t know how many yet,” he said. “And therefore it’s hard for me to make a determination until I’ve seen all the facts.”

The president said he was awaiting reports from two teams he had sent to assess the situation in Liberia, one reviewing the humanitarian needs, the other assessing the military situation. He said he had pressed advisers yesterday in a meeting of the National Security Council on when the assessment teams would report back.

Mr. Annan has joined with European leaders and Liberians to plead with the United States to lead a team of international peacekeepers into Liberia.

After a meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday, Mr. Annan said he hoped the president’s decision “will be coming shortly and I hope it will be positive.”

Mr. Annan also discussed Liberia with U.S. Senate leaders from both parties yesterday. He said the administration had a preliminary assessment report, “but they want to see the full report before a final judgment will be made.”

“I think whatever we can do to help the Liberian situation will be appreciated by millions, not just in Liberia but around the continent,” Mr. Annan said.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, said it had sent aircraft to neighboring countries in case members of the Liberia assessment teams needed to be evacuated.

Three helicopters were sent to Sierra Leone and one MC-130 special-operations transport plane was sent to Senegal, said Navy Lt. Dan Hetlage, a Pentagon spokesman. About 100 U.S. troops are with the four aircraft, he said.

Mr. Bush used his trip last week to Africa to discuss Nigeria’s offer to allow Mr. Taylor to go into exile there, a position reportedly pressed by several African leaders as a feasible solution. He reviewed the offer Saturday with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The White House has been noncommittal about whether it will insist that a war-crimes prosecution proceed if Mr. Taylor goes into exile, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that “there are very sensitive and important discussions going on here.”

Mr. Taylor, a former warlord who spent two years training in Libya, was charged June 4 with war crimes by a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone for his role in that country’s decade-long civil war, which killed 250,000 people and maimed thousands.

Mr. Taylor told Fox that the indictment “ought to be dropped,” but said he didn’t want “want to deal with that right now. What I want to deal with is bringing some reprieve for the Liberian people.”

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