- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

Any effort to quell violence in Liberia should be led by fellow African nations with a “very limited” role played by the United States in a peacekeeping mission, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday.

“If there is U.S. participation, particularly on the ground, we fully expect and have made it clear to our friends in the international community and the [United Nations] that we see it as being very limited in duration and scope,” Mr. Powell told reporters yesterday in South Africa while traveling with President Bush on a five-day trip through Africa.

Mr. Powell’s comments came hours after Liberian President Charles Taylor asked the United States to intervene to stop the civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people and torn apart the coastal nation in Western Africa for more than a decade.

Mr. Taylor, who was charged last month with war crimes, told a reporter, “Americans should come here because they spoiled it, straight up. It’s not going to get fixed unless they come. If America spoils something, who is going to fix it, except God?”

Mr. Taylor has said he would relinquish power and accept an offer of asylum from Nigeria once peacekeepers arrive in his country.

The Congressional Black Caucus, which usually opposes military intervention abroad, yesterday urged Mr. Bush to send troops and aid to Liberia quickly.

“We are not recommending sending our troops to fight a war,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and chairman of the Black Caucus. “Our troops will be part of a force that will be serving in a peacekeeping and stabilizing capacity.”

In March, Mr. Cummings and the Black Caucus opposed the invasion of Iraq “without a clearly demonstrated and imminent threat of attack on the United States,” according to a transcript from the House floor. “A unilateral first strike would undermine the moral authority of the United States, result in substantial loss of life, destabilize the Mideast region and undermine the abilities of our nation to address unmet domestic priorities.”

At yesterday’s press briefing on Liberia, Mr. Cummings said: “We do not want to see one soldier die unnecessarily. But the fact is our troops — and we’re talking about a relatively small number — can change the course of history for millions of people.”

The Black Caucus urged Mr. Bush to make a decision by Sunday.

The administration has come under pressure both at home and abroad to send U.S. troops as part of a peacekeeping force in Liberia, which has close historic ties to the United States since its founding by freed American slaves in the 19th century.

News reports have cited that the number of U.S. troops that might be sent range from several hundred to 2,000.

Early next week, Mr. Bush plans to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discuss the crisis in Liberia.

Mr. Bush has thus far been reluctant to send troops to a region where the United States is perceived to have little direct interest. The last time American troops were deployed in Africa, 18 soldiers were killed during a 1993 raid in Somalia.

“We won’t overextend our troops — period,” Mr. Bush said earlier this week, referring to the 150,000 troops already deployed in Iraq and the 10,000 that are in Afghanistan.

He even suggested that U.S. troops might be best used in Liberia only to train forces from other African countries.

Three West African countries — Nigeria, Ghana and Mali — are preparing to send 1,000 peacekeeping troops.

“It’s a sensible policy for us to continue that training mission so that we never do get overextended,” Mr. Bush said.

Some lawmakers, such as Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, are opposed to committing troops because the case has not been made that “America’s vital interests” are at stake, he said earlier this week.

Most lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, however, remain open-minded about a mission.

The United States has sent military assessment teams into Liberia and other countries in Africa to gather more information about a peacekeeping mission before Mr. Bush makes his decision.

“Until the assessment teams come back, it seems to me that we will not have a good grip on what we would propose,” Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

The team of U.S. military experts, now in the Liberian capital of Monrovia gathering information on the country’s security and humanitarian needs, has nearly finished its work, Mr. Powell said yesterday.

The Rev. Pat Robertson, religious broadcaster and Christian coalition founder, criticized Mr. Bush — whom he otherwise supports — for demanding that Mr. Taylor quit his presidency.

“How dare the president of the United States say to the duly elected president of another country, ‘You’ve got to step down,’” Mr. Robertson said Monday on the Christian Broadcasting Network. “We’re undermining a Christian Baptist president to bring in Muslim rebels to take over the country.”

Mr. Robertson, who has an $8 million investment in a gold-mining venture in Liberia, said the State Department has “mismanaged the situation in nation after nation after nation.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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