PRETORIA, South Africa -- President Bush said yesterday the United States will likely continue training African soldiers for a peacekeeping mission in Liberia as a way to ensure that American troops don't become overextended.
Mr. Bush declined to say explicitly whether he would send U.S. forces to the war-torn West African nation, but his comments seemed to downplay the possibility of their direct involvement.
"We won't overextend our troops, period," Mr. Bush said at a press conference yesterday with South African President Thabo Mbeki.
"Our money has helped train seven battalions of peacekeepers amongst African troops. And it's a sensible policy for us to continue that training mission, so that we never do get overextended."
In Washington yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the Pentagon has also sent teams to other West African nations to determine what kind of peacekeeping forces those nations could deploy in Liberia.
Mr. Bush reiterated U.S. support for that force, organized by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and said that policy would continue.
"One of the things you'll see us do is invigorate this -- reinvigorate the strategy of helping people help themselves by providing training opportunities," he said. "It's in our interest that we continue that strategy ... so that we don't ever get overextended."
Mr. Bush has invited U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, along with the head of U.N. peacekeeping and the head of U.N. political affairs, to the White House on Monday, a U.N. official in Washington told the Associated Press.
Mr. Annan has said he would like to see the United States lead a multinational peacekeeping force in Liberia, which has historically close ties to the United States since its founding by freed American slaves in the early 19th century.
Mr. Annan said yesterday at a meeting in Mozambique that West African nations were ready to play an immediate role in Liberia, although the ECOWAS bloc itself suggested it might not be ready.
The West African nations initially offered 3,000 troops and suggested the United States contribute 2,000. But negotiators meeting in Ghana yesterday said it would take too long and cost too much to mobilize a force of that size.
ECOWAS is proposing to mobilize an initial 1,000 soldiers within two weeks and is asking the United States for 1,500, West African diplomats involved in the talks told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.
American lawmakers, including some Republicans, have questioned the wisdom of another major overseas military mission with U.S. forces already on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The United States has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and 150,000 in Iraq.
At his news conference with Mr. Bush, South Africa's Mr. Mbeki agreed that African nations should bear the principal burden of peacekeeping in Liberia and said U.S. contributions should come chiefly in ways other than combat forces.
"We're not saying that this is a burden that just falls on the United States," the South African leader said. "It really ought to principally fall on us as Africans. Of course, we need a lot of support, logisticswise and so on, to do that, but the will is there."
In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mr. Rumsfeld told senators the U.S. teams are helping the West African nations' forces, in addition to the military team on the ground in Liberia assessing any U.S. role.
"The United States and Great Britain and several other countries have been in a process for many months now training ECOWAS forces. And some have been used in Sierra Leone, some are currently committed," he said.
When asked what he would recommend to the president as far as American involvement, Mr. Rumsfeld said he wanted to see first what the teams in Liberia and other nations reported.
"Until the assessment teams come back, it seems to me that we will not have a good grip on what we would propose to the president," he said.
In South Africa on the second day of his five-nation Africa tour, Mr. Bush also touted his proposals to strengthen trade with sub-Saharan Africa and his five-year, $15 billion plan to fight AIDS. He began his tour Tuesday in Senegal and continues on to Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria.
Also on Mr. Bush's agenda with Mr. Mbeki was the repression and civil strife in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe.
Mr. Bush asked Mr. Mbeki to pressure Mr. Mugabe to restore democracy in South Africa's northern neighbor.
Although Mr. Bush said the United States and South Africa "share the same objective," he said Mr. Mbeki "represents a mighty country in the neighborhood who, because of his position and his responsibility, is working the issue."
He said the United States does not have "any intention of second-guessing his tactics."
"He's making -- he believes -- making good progress. And the United States supports him in this effort," Mr. Bush said of Mr. Mbeki.
Mr. Mbeki, who has come under some U.S. criticism for not exerting enough pressure on Mr. Mugabe, repeated his government's stance that "principal responsibility for the resolution of these problems rests with the people of Zimbabwe."
South Africa has urged "both the ruling party and the opposition -- the government and the opposition -- to get together and seriously tackle all of these issues," Mr. Mbeki said.
In Pretoria, about 1,000 demonstrators marched on the U.S. Embassy, protesting the American-led war in Iraq and Mr. Bush's trip to Africa. The demonstrators burned several small American flags emblazoned with slogans denouncing Mr. Bush.
"We stand together with millions of people throughout the world and say that the biggest weapon of mass destruction is George W. Bush," said one speaker.
Mr. Bush, who is traveling with first lady Laura Bush and daughter Barbara, also toured a Ford auto factory and attended a dinner in Mr. Mbeki's honor at the home of U.S. Ambassador Cameron Hume.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.