- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

President Bush is expected to decide today whether to send U.S. troops to Liberia to lead peacekeeping efforts, a move opposed by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and top brass at the Pentagon.

Mr. Rumsfeld, who met yesterday morning at the White House with the president and the two top generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opposes a call for the United States to dispatch 2,000 troops to head another 3,000 peacekeepers from various African countries in an operation to stabilize the Liberian capital of Monrovia.

Still, the secretary shared with Mr. Bush a contingency plan for such a deployment.

“It’s in play,” one White House official said of the option to send U.S. troops to quell an uprising of rebel forces against Liberian President Charles Taylor, indicted June 4 on war crime charges.

Mr. Bush said yesterday, “we’re looking at all options,” and his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told reporters the option “remains under active consideration.”

“I’m not going to guess at what time a decision will be made,” the White House Press Secretary said.

While the president did not indicate which way he was leaning on the issue, rumors circulated that the president would announce deployment of 500 to 1,000 peacekeeping troops to Liberia. Fox News reported the Bush administration had already decided to send a “fast team” of 50 to 75 U.S. Marines to Liberia to serve as peacekeepers.

The Marines have been on standby in Spain since two rocket-propelled grenade rounds exploded outside the main embassy compound in Monrovia last month, which was followed by civil unrest and a flood of refugees seeking shelter. Deploying the team would be independent of any decision of longer-term peacekeepers.

“The president could do anything,” one White House official said. “I can’t tell you the president won’t do something.”

Mr. Bush, who has opted not to send peacekeeping troops to several nations, including Congo, and campaigned in 2000 on a platform of limiting such deployments, reportedly told top Pentagon officials that troops involved in the Liberian operation — should he deploy them — must be given a clear mission that includes an exit strategy.

The president is expected to make a decision before departing for a five-day trip to Africa, with stops in Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria. In recent days, Mr. Bush has been touting the U.S.-African partnership — which will be the major theme of his trip — and some expect the president will announce the deployment of troops to Liberia when he meets today with African journalists.

The State Department yesterday would not confirm that a final decision on U.S. troops in Liberia had been made, but said the decision could be imminent.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a decision in the next 24 hours,” a senior administration official said. Officials said Mr. Bush faces a practical deadline tomorrow, the beginning of the Fourth of July weekend, after which he makes his trip to Africa.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Mr. Bush’s point man in the diplomatic discussions on Liberia, spoke again by phone yesterday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan about U.S. participation in a Liberian mission.

Mr. Annan has strongly pushed for a U.S. role, but Mr. Powell, interviewed later on the “Sean Hannity” radio talk-show program, insisted that no decision had been made as of late yesterday.

“The president is examining his options. But it’s premature to say that he has made a decision and that an announcement is forthcoming in the next day or so,” Mr. Powell said.

Senior State Department officials confirmed that the intense discussions have moved beyond whether the United States will participate to operational details about how and how many American troops will work with a contingent of West African troops in a peacekeeping mission on the ground in Liberia.

The State Department last week advised the president to send a small contingent of troops for a limited time to Monrovia to help enforce the cease-fire.

Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “The whole concept that’s coming from the U.N. is that there would be a West African contingent and there would be some additional forces. The question is: What’s the purpose? What’s the operation?”

A defense official said the issue was discussed at a meeting yesterday morning with the president and Mr. Rumsfeld, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman.

“We’re looking at a number of options, but no decisions have been made,” the official said. “There’s been a decision to make a decision.”

West African leaders on Monday asked the United States for 2,000 troops to head a predominantly African force to stop the turmoil and keep the peace.

The Pentagon has been training African troops for peacekeeping and there is an expectation that forces from Ghana and Senegal could play a major role in the peacekeeping in Liberia, with U.S. forces providing logistics and transportation, the defense official said.

France, Britain and both sides in Liberia’s fighting also have pushed for an American role in a peace force for the country founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

The current round of fighting in Liberia began three years ago as rebels began trying to oust President Charles Taylor, who won contested elections and took the presidency in 1997 after a 1989-96 civil war.

Fighting killed hundreds of trapped civilians in Monrovia last month and the war has displaced more than 1 million Liberians. Thousands of Liberians celebrated outside the U.S. Embassy in the Liberian capital of Monrovia late Tuesday as rumors spread about U.S. intervention.

Mr. Taylor yesterday rejected a Nigerian offer of safe haven in part because he fears it won’t protect him from a war-crimes indictment. He was indicted June 4 for backing rebels in Sierra Leone who fought a 10-year terror campaign for the country’s diamond fields. He has also been accused of playing a role in several other West African conflicts.

Mr. Taylor had offered in June to cede power as part of peace talks toward ending the Liberia insurgency, which has displaced more than 1 million people. He later retracted the offer, as he has done before, and said he will serve to the end of his term in January 2004. He even suggested he might run again.

Mr. Bush made clear his stance on that. “One thing has to happen: Mr. Taylor needs to leave the country,” he said yesterday.

Bill Gertz contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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