Wednesday, August 6, 2003

President Bush has ordered a small force of U.S. troops into Liberia despite President Charles Taylor’s failure to heed Mr. Bush’s calls to leave office as a way to restore stability to the war-torn African nation.

Black Hawk helicopters landed in the capital city of Monrovia yesterday, disgorging an “advisory team” of fewer than 20 GIs to serve at the headquarters of a multinational peacekeeping force. Another 80 troops recently arrived to bolster security at the U.S. Embassy there.

In addition, 2,400 Marines stand ready 40 miles off the Liberian coast in case of an emergency. The last of a three-ship amphibious readiness group yesterday arrived offshore.

“This is all part of determining what is necessary to help [West African troops] to go in and provide the conditions necessary for humanitarian relief to arrive, whether it be by sea or by air,” Mr. Bush said near his Texas ranch.

The president was referring to Monday’s arrival in Liberia of the first of several battalions of Nigerian troops, which will be followed by additional forces from Bangladesh. Reports from Liberia estimated 500 troops were in the capital yesterday.

The deployment of what eventually will amount to more than 3,000 Nigerians to Liberia was hailed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

“The Nigerians showed up in good order,” Mr. Powell said as he joined Mr. Bush outside a diner. “More forces are arriving and they’re starting to establish a sense of security and I think put hope back in the hearts of the Liberian people. And we want to support them and assist them.”

This is the first deployment of U.S. military forces into sub-Saharan Africa since 1993, when President Clinton sent troops into Somalia. He pulled out after 18 of them died in the longest ground attack since Vietnam, a firefight memorialized in the book and film “Black Hawk Down.”

Mr. Bush had been mulling whether to send troops to Liberia for more than a month and had hoped Mr. Taylor would step aside before any such deployment. When asked July 3 about when he might send troops, the president said he wanted “to make sure that there are certain expectations met.”

He added: “And one expectation is Mr. Taylor has got to leave.”

Yesterday, both the president and Mr. Powell repeated their demands that Mr. Taylor step aside. The Liberian leader promised Monday to leave office, but not the country.

Nigerian officials said the Liberian leader was talking of leaving Aug. 16 or 17, and was holding out for a full airport sendoff with pomp and ceremony following his promised resignation date.

But Mr. Taylor’s government has hedged about his departure, saying he would leave only after enough peacekeepers are on the ground and if a U.N. war-crimes indictment based on his support of rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone is dropped.

Administration officials were skeptical because Mr. Taylor has broken numerous earlier promises to resign. But Mr. Bush’s qualms about deploying troops apparently were eased by the arrival of the first of a force that might ultimately grow to 9,000 West African troops — who are expected to do most of the peacekeeping.

That leaves Americans providing mostly logistics, communications and intelligence — at least for the moment. Mr. Bush declined to directly answer a reporter who asked whether additional U.S. forces might be deployed in the future.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are expected to travel tomorrow to the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, where a formal announcement of the U.S. deployment to Liberia is scheduled.

Mr. Bush met yesterday at his ranch with Mr. Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage before adjourning to the diner for a lunch of hamburgers.

The president said the three spent hours “talking about our country’s desire to promote peace and freedom, our obligations as a prosperous and strong nation to help the less fortunate. And we had a good strategy session.”

Mr. Bush for the first time publicly disputed a report Monday in The Washington Post that Mr. Powell and Mr. Armitage planned to resign if and when the president begins a second term.

“First things first — we hope there is a second Bush administration,” the president said in response to questions from a reporter. “And I will work hard to convince the American people that their confidence in me is justified. And we’ll deal with it at the right time.”

As for Mr. Powell and Mr. Armitage, the president said: “These guys have done a fabulous job. And Washington, particularly in August, is a dangerous period — a dangerous time because there’s a lot of speculation.”

When a reporter persisted, the president expressed frustration.

“Washington loves speculation,” Mr. Bush said. “Clearly, you love speculation. You love it. You love to speculate about — ”

When reporters interrupted with follow-up questions, Mr. Bush plowed ahead with his answer.

“Let me finish please,” he said. “You love to speculate about whether so-and-so is going to be a part of the administration or not.

“And I understand the game, but I have got my job and I’m going to do it. And I’m going to do it with the secretary of state.”

When asked whether he would serve a second term, Mr. Powell said: “I don’t have a term. I serve the president.”

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