Bush weighs sending troops to Liberia

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President Bush is expected to decide today whether to send U.S. troops to Liberia to lead peacekeeping efforts, a move opposed by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and top brass at the Pentagon.

Mr. Rumsfeld, who met yesterday morning at the White House with the president and the two top generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opposes a call for the United States to dispatch 2,000 troops to head another 3,000 peacekeepers from various African countries in an operation to stabilize the Liberian capital of Monrovia.

Still, the secretary shared with Mr. Bush a contingency plan for such a deployment.

“It’s in play,” one White House official said of the option to send U.S. troops to quell an uprising of rebel forces against Liberian President Charles Taylor, indicted June 4 on war crime charges.

Mr. Bush said yesterday, “we’re looking at all options,” and his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told reporters the option “remains under active consideration.”

“I’m not going to guess at what time a decision will be made,” the White House Press Secretary said.

While the president did not indicate which way he was leaning on the issue, rumors circulated that the president would announce deployment of 500 to 1,000 peacekeeping troops to Liberia. Fox News reported the Bush administration had already decided to send a “fast team” of 50 to 75 U.S. Marines to Liberia to serve as peacekeepers.

The Marines have been on standby in Spain since two rocket-propelled grenade rounds exploded outside the main embassy compound in Monrovia last month, which was followed by civil unrest and a flood of refugees seeking shelter. Deploying the team would be independent of any decision of longer-term peacekeepers.

“The president could do anything,” one White House official said. “I can’t tell you the president won’t do something.”

Mr. Bush, who has opted not to send peacekeeping troops to several nations, including Congo, and campaigned in 2000 on a platform of limiting such deployments, reportedly told top Pentagon officials that troops involved in the Liberian operation — should he deploy them — must be given a clear mission that includes an exit strategy.

The president is expected to make a decision before departing for a five-day trip to Africa, with stops in Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria. In recent days, Mr. Bush has been touting the U.S.-African partnership — which will be the major theme of his trip — and some expect the president will announce the deployment of troops to Liberia when he meets today with African journalists.

The State Department yesterday would not confirm that a final decision on U.S. troops in Liberia had been made, but said the decision could be imminent.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a decision in the next 24 hours,” a senior administration official said. Officials said Mr. Bush faces a practical deadline tomorrow, the beginning of the Fourth of July weekend, after which he makes his trip to Africa.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Mr. Bush’s point man in the diplomatic discussions on Liberia, spoke again by phone yesterday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan about U.S. participation in a Liberian mission.

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