Somalia intervention opposed Big 'drain' on U.S. cited by Democrat

December 03, 1992|By Charles W. Corddry | Charles W. Corddry,Washington Bureau Richard H. P. Sia of the Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs a powerful defense panel, said yesterday that intervention in famine-stricken Somalia was "not in our national interest" and would put a tremendous drain on U.S. resources.

In perhaps the strongest opposition expressed by a member of Congress so far, Mr. Murtha said military plans have not yet been thought through. He told reporters at a breakfast meeting: "We just don't know where the hell we're going."

Mr. Murtha, a decorated ex-Marine and the first Vietnam War veteran elected to Congress, said he had conveyed his opposition to President-elect Bill Clinton and discussed it Tuesday with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

The Pennsylvanian is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, making him influential on budgetary matters. Mr. Murtha has little power to stop the administration from acting, but could try to build public opposition to the mission.

Other congressional leaders, including House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., have expressed support for the intervention to get food to more than 1 million Somalis threatened with starvation.

Yesterday, President Bush called Mr. Clinton to discuss the status of the United Nations debate on Somalia, according to White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. Mr. Fitzwater said the president would stay in touch with Mr. Clinton and was consulting world leaders as well.

An administration official who asked not to be identified said Mr. Bush was considering whether to address the American people by television to explain the military relief mission after the U.N. Security Council vote, expected today.

In New York, U.N. diplomats said that U.S. military commanders will have to give up the free rein they had in the Persian Gulf war and accept some U.N. oversight in Somalia.

But a U.S. draft resolution for the Security Council leaves the door open for a U.S. general to command a proposed U.S. force in Somalia, where civil war and famine have already left an estimated 300,000 dead. Diplomats also said daily operations will probably be left to field commanders.

The U.S draft resolution is part of a compromise Washington is forging to win the support of China, which has threatened a U.N. Security Council veto against a free-wheeling U.S.-led operation. African nations are also worried about U.S. military presence and influence on their continent.

The Pentagon had sought complete control over its forces, including the right to decide when to withdraw. But U.S. diplomats realized such an arrangement might be opposed by some Security Council members and indicated they would accept some degree of U.N. oversight.

Mr. Murtha raised questions about the rules of engagement that would guide U.S. forces once they were ashore -- such as when troops could shoot and whether they would carry rifles with cartridges in the chambers, ready for firing in a confused area of clan warfare.

"I have no idea what the mission would be in Somalia," he said.

A Pentagon source said yesterday that the rules of engagement remain unsettled for military planners.

Nevertheless, much of the military planning is done, one official said, and Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Horn of Africa, is expected to brief Mr. Bush and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, today.

An amphibious unit of 1,800 Marines was expected to arrive off Somalia early today. Their task will be to secure the international airport at Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, to prepare for the arrival of troops and equipment.

The Bush administration had not, as of yesterday morning, said how many troops it might send to Somalia. Mr. Murtha said the defense secretary told him it would not be nearly as many as the 30,000 that the United States originally offered.

Despite his resistance to the operation, Mr. Murtha said that if the administration insists on proceeding, the commitment should be large enough to ensure the security of U.S. forces. No one knows how much the operation in Somalia would cost, but Mr. Murtha predicted that it would seriously strain the military's training and operating budget.

At a time when the U.S. military is shrinking and would undoubtedly take big cuts in the next Congress, Mr. Murtha said, going into Somalia would "hurt the military every place else . . . take money away from everywhere else."

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