- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

President Bush yesterday ordered a three-ship amphibious force to a position off the coast of war-torn Liberia in anticipation of putting a limited number of U.S. troops ashore to assist West African peacekeepers.

Mr. Bush’s order came as the rebel group fighting bloody street battles in the Liberian capital of Monrovia against government troops announced a cease-fire.

Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) said it would maintain “a potent defensive posture in defending its present forward positions,” said a Reuters news agency dispatch from the capital, where hundreds have died in the past week alone.

The offer to stop fighting came after mortar rounds slammed into the U.S. Embassy compound, as well as homes and schools crowded with refugees. Both the rebels and troops loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor blamed each other for the barrage.

Mr. Bush’s order eventually may become a commitment to put American boots on the ground in Monrovia to enforce peace. Previously, he ordered a fast-reaction force of Marines from Rota, Spain, into the capital to help protect the besieged U.S. Embassy and protect American citizens.

“U.S. troops will be there to help [West African troops] go in and serve as peacekeepers necessary to create the conditions so that humanitarian aid can go in and help the people of Liberia,” Mr. Bush told reporters at the White House.

The president did not specifically say the troops would go ashore, but defense officials said privately it would be difficult to aid African peacekeepers from a sea base miles way.

“We’re deeply concerned that the condition of the Liberian people is getting worse and worse and worse,” Mr. Bush said.

What was left unsaid was the size and makeup of the force that would enter Liberia.

In response to the president’s order, the Navy is moving the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima and the support vessels USS Carter Hall and USS Nashville from the Mediterranean to the Liberian coast.

The Amphibious Ready Group carries more than 2,000 combat Marines, plus attack helicopters and jet fighters. The Marines specialize in all types of combat, including urban warfare and embassy evacuations.

U.S. European Command, which overseas military operations in West Africa, has been studying troop options that could result in 300 to 1,000 U.S. troops landing in Liberia. The force would include support personnel as well as combat troops to protect them. They would aid a larger peacekeeping force of perhaps 3,000 Africans, led by Nigeria.

On what option will be chosen, Mr. Bush said, “The Pentagon will make it clear over time what that means.”

Mr. Bush repeated his demand that Mr. Taylor, who has been indicted for war crimes and presided over a decade of violence, must resign from power and leave the country.

“Aid can’t get to the people,” Mr. Bush said. “We’re worried about the outbreak of disease.”

The United Nations “will be responsible for developing a political solution,” the president said. “And they will be responsible for relieving the U.S. troops in short order.”

This statement suggested that American troops would, indeed, enter the dangerous sections of Monrovia.

The statement from the rebel group said it welcomed the introduction of peacekeepers. “This unilateral cease-fire is declared with due respect to the international community and humanitarian concern,” the group said.

Monrovia’s battered and hungry civilian population has urged Mr. Bush to send troops.

“I want to tell George Bush to do something hurriedly, very fast and quickly,” Emmanuel Sieh, 28, told the Associated Press as crowds gathered around the U.S. Embassy. “People are dying every day.”

The White House has internally debated the idea of sending troops for the past two weeks.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is described as cool toward the deployment, and wants to keep it as small as possible. He has 148,000 troops in Iraq and another 10,000 in Afghanistan fighting low-grade wars, putting new stresses on a stretched force.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is pushing a broader U.S. agenda on the African continent that includes helping to restore peace in Liberia, creating a new anti-AIDS initiative and encouraging a counterterrorism offensive in West Africa.

At the White House, Press Secretary Scott McClellan said: “The president has directed the secretary of defense to position military capabilities off the coast of Liberia, so that we can support [the Economic Community of West Africa States] in its efforts to get in there and make sure a cease-fire takes hold, and get humanitarian assistance to the people of Liberia.”

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