Entering a more visible phase of counterterrorism operations in Northern Africa, the White House said Tuesday it is sharing intelligence with France and considering a request to provide military aid in the French fight against Islamist extremists in Mali.
However, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, traveling in Europe, ruled out the possibility of U.S. combat forces being involved. "There is no consideration of U.S. boots on the ground," he told reporters Tuesday.
State Department officials said that support could include cargo planes to shuttle troops in and out of theater, flying tankers for aerial refueling, ammunition, spare parts, and even troops' rations.
"We share the French goal of denying terrorists a safe haven in the region, and we support the French operation," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "We are supporting the French by sharing information. And we are considering requests for logistical support."
French fighter jets have struck Islamist strongholds deep inside Mali's vast northern desert in recent days, and the French government said it plans to triple the number of fighting forces to 2,500. The U.N. Security Council has condemned the takeover in the north by Islamist extremist groups and tribal rebels, and authorized a peacekeeping force last year.
But the African-led force was not slated to deploy until the fall, and last week, after a series of significant military gains by rebels, Mali's president asked the French military to step in in the former French colony. Since granting independence to its former African colonies, Paris has maintained a close interest in them and has staged several military interventions in recent decades.
U.S. military officials said they will provide assistance to the French, but gave no details, because "they are still being hammered out," U.S. Africa Command spokesman Maj. Robert A. Firman told The Washington Times.
He said there would be an announcement from the Pentagon "soon."
Mr. Carney said it was in the national interest of the United States to help stabilize the U.N.-backed interim government in Mali's capital, Bamako. A loose secessionist coalition of Islamist militias and Tuareg tribal rebels have expelled the Malian military from the northern half of the country, and concern is mounting that extremists will use the vast desert as a base for terrorist operations in the West.
"It's also imperative that the transitional government of Mali present a political road map for a return to democratic governance and negotiations with groups that reject terrorism and accept a unified Mali," Mr. Carney said.
French authorities raised the terrorism-threat level in Paris over the weekend, bracing for possible retaliation from Islamist terrorist cells in Europe.
Mr. Carney said the U.S. would play a secondary role in the military operation in Mali.
"The operation that the French have undertaken in Mali is one that we support, but it is a French operation," Mr. Carney said. "When you talk about other al Qaeda affiliates or other similarly inclined terrorist organizations, we work with our allies around the world to assist their efforts to deprive terrorists of safe havens or deal with terrorist organizations that represent threats, in the case of Mali, to French citizens."
Mr. Obama spoke with French President Francois Hollande last week.
"We will stay in close touch with the French government and other international partners as the situation [in Mali] develops," Mr. Carney said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that U.S. law prohibited any direct aid to the Malian military, because of the coup its commanders engineered last year, which overthrew the president and provoked the northern Islamists to rebel.
But the United States could aid the French, who would be fighting alongside the Malian military and the African-led peacekeeping force, whenever it eventually deploys.
"We are precluded under the countercoup restrictions from funding a military that has been involved in a coup until democracy has been restored," Ms. Nuland said, "But we're not precluded from assisting allies and partners in trying to restore security to that country."
Mr. Hollande last week also persuaded Mr. Obama to support a French military operation in Somalia, where special forces were trying to rescue a French hostage from militants. U.S. fighter planes entered Somali airspace in the operation on Friday, but didn't use their weapons, the White House said. The rescue mission failed with the apparent death of the hostage and the killing of at least one French commando.
Asked if the U.S. is expanding its front in the fight against terrorism in North Africa, Mr. Carney replied, "We obviously work with our allies in an effort to deal with al Qaeda and its affiliates around the world and around both the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere."
Mr. Hollande, visiting the Persian Gulf region to drum up support for the French intervention, vowed Tuesday that French forces will not leave until the country is stable — raising the prospect of a lengthy operation.
"We have one goal: to ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process, and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory," Mr. Hollande told a news conference Tuesday in the United Arab Emirates, according to Reuters.
Vocal support for the French also came from the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who called Tuesday for the Obama administration to "honor appropriate requests for intelligence and logistics support from France."
"When confronting a shared threat, we should have our ally's back," said Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican.
"I welcome France taking the initiative to combat this serious security threat in North Africa," said Mr. Royce, adding that their control of northern Mali gave "these al-Qaeda-linked militants space to operate, and the weapons flowing out of Libya makes them deadly."
"This cancer could not go unaddressed," the committee chairman said.
A spokesman for the Taliban in Afghanistan, Zabihullah Mujahid, said France "has launched war against the Muslim nation of Mali without having any legal jurisdiction."
"Such interventions and attacks are not only disastrous for Mali, but also for France," he said. "All the powerful countries of the world should take lessons from the failed American policy of military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, from which it cannot wrangle free or regain its lost status."
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