- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 5, 2003

President Bush yesterday directed the Pentagon to send an “assessment team” to Liberia to determine how best to restore peace in the war-torn nation, whose elected president said he would not cede power until an international peacekeeping force is deployed.

Meanwhile, West African defense chiefs yesterday approved the establishment of a 3,000-member “interpositional force” of African troops to restore peace in Liberia.

The U.S. assessment team — which has not yet been selected — would work with the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States and the United Nations to “ascertain what their capabilities are, to determine how best to most effectively keep peace,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

“They will determine what the most effective way is to create stability. The president will determine whether troops go over there,” he said. “The Pentagon has received its charge; the Pentagon will now make the determinations of the precise numbers and the timing, and that type of thing. This is what the Pentagon experts do for a living.”

For most of the week, the president has been weighing whether to dispatch as many as 2,000 U.S. troops to head a peacekeeping operation in Liberia, a West African nation of 3.5 million founded in 1847 by former American slaves. Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Bush had still not made a decision and that he would not rush into one simply because he departs for a five-day trip to Africa on Monday.

“If the president were to decide that troops should be sent, it’s important to do all the proper due diligence that must come first, before troops are sent. So this is part of planning so that when the president says all options are on the table, if — and I still emphasize ‘if’ — the president decides to send troops, the planning is in place so that option can be exercised,” Mr. Fleischer said.

“That is the context in which the assessment team is going out to have these talks. But the president still has to collect additional information and he still is not guided by any artificial deadlines about his trip to Africa. He’ll make his determination when he has his information and feels that it is the right thing to do, one way or another,” he added.

Mr. Fleischer said the commitment of troops “is not a matter to be taken lightly” and that the president “proceeds to make these determinations in a very methodical, deliberate fashion.”

In Liberia’s capital of Monrovia, President Charles Taylor announced that he would be willing to step down once an international peacekeeping force was in place. Taylor, a guerrilla leader trained by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in the 1980s, was indicted June 17 on charges that he reaped millions from the illicit sale of diamonds mined by troops he armed and trained in nearby Sierra Leone.

“It makes a lot of sense for peacekeepers to arrive in this city before I transit,” Mr. Taylor said, adding he “cannot understand why the U.S. government will insist that I be absent before its soldiers arrive in Liberia.”

Monrovia, a city of more than 1 million people that has no electricity, running water or telephone service, is now under the control of soldiers loyal to Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Bush has been insisting that Mr. Taylor leave before a peacekeeping force is dispatched.

Still, the White House welcomed the news that Mr. Taylor would soon be gone, but cautioned that he is not to be trusted. Last month, Mr. Taylor announced he would cede power, but then reneged, setting off new battles in a three-year civil war.

“The president has called for Charles Taylor to leave Liberia so that peace and stability can take root,” Mr. Fleischer told reporters aboard Air Force One as Mr. Bush flew to Ohio to deliver a Fourth of July speech. “If this report of Charles Taylor leaving is true, the president would be encouraged by it. But it’s important that it’s more than words; it has to be deeds. He needs to leave, so that peace can be achieved.”

The spokesman said it was not yet clear what the timing of Mr. Taylor’s departure would be. But Mr. Fleischer said: “He needs to leave, leave now, leave quickly and soon — that’s where it stands.”

Mr. Fleischer confirmed that the United States, led by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, is deeply involved in ongoing talks about how to persuade Mr. Taylor to step down and where he would go. He also said foreign leaders support Mr. Bush’s call that Mr. Taylor cede power.

“I think numerous leaders agree with the president’s statement. I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Taylor has received that message from numerous leaders,” Mr. Fleischer said.

“Secretary Powell is working the diplomacy, and … there are sensitive talks that are under way. And this is because there are many nations that share the president’s view that the best way to achieve peace and stability in Liberia is for Charles Taylor to leave the country.”

Senior U.S. officials told the Associated Press that the president’s advisers are split on sending U.S. troops to Liberia. Instead of working out their differences over the past few days, they are now expected to present conflicting advice to the commander in chief.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is skeptical about sending U.S. troops there and has been a steady voice in opposing the move, although he reportedly has fallen in line as Mr. Bush has made clear that some sort of intervention is necessary. Mr. Powell has been a steadfast advocate of intervening to restore stability in Liberia.

Mr. Powell has been consulting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and African governments on how U.S. troops would fit in with African forces. To that end, the U.S. military commander in Europe has been ordered to begin planning for possible American intervention in Liberia, officials said.

A directive called a “warning order” was sent to Gen. James Jones, asking him to give the Pentagon his estimate of how the situation in the West African nation might be handled, Defense officials said on the condition of anonymity.

Options on the table range from sending no troops to sending thousands, officials said. Several officials said Mr. Bush may decide to send just half of the 2,000 troops requested.

Meanwhile, several hundred Liberians protested against Mr. Taylor, chanting “Red baboon, it is time to go. We’re tired of the mess.” The crowd, waving American flags and throwing stones, was dispersed when police fired above demonstrators’ heads and used whips.

“If I am the reason for the conflict in Liberia, I will step down,” said Mr. Taylor, who sold some of the stolen diamonds to the al Qaeda network in 2000 and 2001 as the terrorist organization moved its cash to commodities in advance of the September 11 attacks against the United States.

Mr. Bush, speaking at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, said the United States had learned a lesson from the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“Since that September day, we made our own intentions clear to them: The United States will not stand by and wait for another attack or trust in the restraint and good intentions of evil men,” Mr. Bush said.

“We will not permit any terrorist group or outlaw regime to threaten us with weapons of mass murder,” he told a cheering crowd of mostly military men and women and their families. “We will act whenever necessary to protect the lives and liberty of the American people.”

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