WASHINGTON -- United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali urged the Security Council yesterday to use military force throughout Somalia to help feed the starving, advancing the prospect of a major U.S.-led military operation in the Horn of Africa.
Under his recommendation, the forces would seize warlords' heavy weapons and disarm militias to support relief efforts in the civil war-wracked country. An estimated 300,000 Somalis have died, and another 1.5 million are threatened.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali also made clear that while military action should be "precisely defined and limited in time," a longer-term U.N. role was needed to end Somalia's civil war and revive its economy.
This means President-elect Bill Clinton, who has endorsed President Bush's offer of troops, will probably inherit a continuing U.S. commitment even if military action is largely completed. Brent Scowcroft, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, has been in regular contact with a Clinton camp counterpart, Samuel R. Berger.
The Security Council is expected to consult on Somalia starting today, but it may not vote before the end of the week, a U.S. official said.
At issue is whether to accept a U.S.-led force or one under U.N. command. Although Mr. Boutros-Ghali said the latter was both preferable and consistent with his long-term plans for the world body, U.S. officials have made clear that U.S. troops would not follow anything but a U.S. command.
In a letter to the council, Mr. Boutros-Ghali said, "The Security Council now has no alternative but to decide to adopt more forceful measures to secure the humanitarian operations in Somalia."
Food delivery reached a crisis last week when a rocket hit a World Food Program ship as it approached Mogadishu with tons of food. Acting U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger estimated in a weekend television interview that 80 percent of food shipments to Somalia never reached the people who needed them.
Without military protection, Mr. Boutros-Ghali said, relief agencies have to pay protection money to the various warring factions and clans, reducing help for the starving and making the lawless trade in aid increasingly a foundation of the Somali economy.
While no other country has publicly offered troops for a U.S.-led force, Egypt is likely to contribute, and various European powers already have pledged peacekeeping forces.
U.S. policy-makers support the idea of a military operation because, unlike the war-torn former Yugoslavia, a successful operation in Somalia is considered "doable," a senior U.S. official said. The forces to be confronted "are mostly teens with AK47s in the back of pickup trucks chewing khat [a plant with a stimulating effect]."
But even though anarchy reigns, some U.N. member countries have deep misgivings about the Security Council's interfering in a country's internal affairs.
In addition, a Western diplomat said, "There is some sense of repugnance at seeing white people kill black people."
The United States has appointed a retired senior diplomat, Robert Oakley, former ambassador to Somalia and Pakistan, as its special envoy on Somalia to act as liaison with the United Nations.
Although aides say President Bush made the troop offer for humanitarian reasons, Somalia is not without strategic interest for the United States or its close ally, Egypt.
Directly to the south is Kenya, a port of call for U.S. forces that is now undergoing a difficult transition to democracy. "The last thing it needs is destabilization on its northern border," a U.S. official said.
Any spillover could also threaten Ethiopia and Djibouti, affecting the Bab el Mandeb, a choke point for sea traffic between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Across the gulf is Yemen, and beyond it, Saudi Arabia. Nearby, as well, is Sudan, whose ruling party is becoming increasingly linked with Muslim radicals.
Senior U.S. military officials cautioned yesterday that decisions were several days away on the size or mix of the U.S. forces that would head to Somalia, although they predicted that far fewer than 30,000 troops would be needed. They said much of the detailed planning depended on the outcome of the U.N. meetings.
One official said the contingency force would probably include Marines and Army airborne troops -- although not necessarily elements of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.
This official raised as a "strong possibility" the use of an Army airborne infantry regiment based in Vicenza, Italy, a rapid deployment force that has trained in Africa.