- The Washington Times - Monday, January 14, 2013

U.S. officials voiced support Monday for France’s military campaign against al Qaeda-linked rebels in Mali, and downplayed the notion that the United States is on the verge of getting pulled into a widening conflict in the West African nation.

“I commend France for taking the steps that it has,” said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, adding that the Pentagon has promised to cooperate with French forces and “provide whatever assistance we can to try to help them.”

His assertions came as Islamist rebels seized new territory about 250 miles outside Mali’s capital of Bamako, despite attempts by French warplanes to pound rebel strongholds for a third day.

Mr. Panetta said the U.S. has “a responsibility to make sure that al Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali.”

But questions arose Monday about the role Washington ultimately will play in the conflict.

At the State Department, a top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton disputed weekend claims by French authorities that the U.S. already is providing “communications and transport” help to French forces in Mali.

“We’re in consultation with the French now on a number of requests that they have made,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “We’re reviewing the requests that they have made, but I don’t have any decisions to announce yet today.”

Authorities said about 400 French troops have been deployed to Mali since Paris began its intervention Friday. As many as 6,000 French citizens live in Mali, and the two nations share a colonial past.

The push for intervention mounted in Washington late last year amid suspicion that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may have played a role in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed.

Diplomats from the United Nations to the African Union have been monitoring the situation in Mali for months.

Mali stumbled toward instability last spring, when military operatives overthrew its president. Taking advantage of the governmental disarray, Islamist militants took control of a large swath of Mali’s north.

By July, the U.N.’s refugee agency was reporting that Mali’s entire northern region was “controlled by Islamists,” with some 450,000 Malians having been driven from their homes by violence.

U.S. and European authorities have said that the Islamists have ties to AQIM — opening the possibility that Mali is devolving into a safe haven for al Qaeda devotees from across North Africa.

“We’ve been very concerned about AQIM and their efforts to establish a very strong base in that area,” Mr. Panetta said Monday.

Defense officials said there has been discussion about providing limited logistic and airlift support, along with intelligence-sharing with French forces.

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