'America must act' Troops will be prepared for 'pre-emptive' action

December 05, 1992|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It will begin at a secret hour early next week U.S. troops, carrying tons of weapons and tons of supplies for themselves, will surge onto foreign soil. But this will be an invasion to bring bread, not bombs.

U.S. military leaders stressed yesterday that by committing such a massive U.S. force -- over 28,000 troops -- to reinforce the outgunned United Nations relief operation in famine-struck Somalia, they were trying to prevent conflict, not to provoke it.

The U.S.-led force was prepared, however, to take "pre-emptive" action against Somali militants and may seek to disarm belligerents, possibly by offering bounties for weapons, said Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We're just not going to ride shotgun, waiting for people to shoot at us and then shoot back," General Powell said at a Pentagon briefing held jointly with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

"If we see areas where it will be dangerous for our troops to operate . . . we'll do what's necessary to eliminate the danger," he said.

A major reason for sending such a large force, he said, was to convince the faction leaders, whose armed bands have halted U.N. aid to starving millions in Somalia, to stop their destabilizing actions.

"We wanted them to understand that. We wanted them to see that," he said.

While the Somalia operation pales in comparison with the 540,000 troops used in the Persian Gulf, the hostile and forbidding nature of Somalia -- the lack of clean water, food, medical supplies and other basic amenities -- is another reason for mobilizing such a large force. A high proportion of the personnel are needed simply to support the active forces on the ground, Mr. Cheney said.

He said it would probably be necessary to call up some National Guard and Reserve units -- particularly those with specialties in fields such as water-purification, medicine and cargo-handling.

The force will set foot on the ravaged land early next week when the first 1,550 Marines make an amphibious and helicopter-borne landing in southern Somalia, kicking off an exercise that has been named Operation Restore Hope.

The Marines' first task will be to to secure the port capital, Mogadishu, and the inland town of Baidoa, the United Nations' main relief center, 130 miles to the northwest.

While that first phase is under way the first week, waves of Marine and Army contingents will be flying in from the United States to prepare to expand the defensive net to other parts of the violence-torn country, General Powell said.

In a build-up phase scheduled to take three to four weeks, some 16,000 personnel from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and about 10,000 soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., will join the operation. They will be supported by about 600 personnel from a tactical airlift squadron of C-130 transport planes that have been operating out of Kenya since August.

In the next phase of the operation, the Army and Marine forces will converge on Baidoa and then fan out into the countryside to establish defensive bases at the worst-affected settlements of Belet Wen, Oddur and Gailalassi across southern Somalia, General Powell said.

Then, the force will expand its operations southward to the port of Kismayo -- the only other town aside from Mogadishu with a usable port and an air strip large enough to accommodate the giant C-141B jet transports used to fly in supplies -- and the town of Bardera in the southwest.

Mr. Cheney said he hoped the operation would be completed in two to three months, when the U.S.-led force could withdraw and hand over to a U.N. peace-keeping mission the task of establishing law and order in Somalia.

He said some U.S. troops might begin pulling out of Somalia before Jan. 20, the date of President-elect Bill Clinton's inauguration. But he dismissed speculation that the administration expected to wrap up the entire operation by then.

"We don't want to be bound by an artificial deadline that is unrelated to circumstances that our troops face on the ground in Somalia," the defense secretary said.

"We will consider that we have achieved our objective when the supplies can be delivered and a blue-helmeted force with U.N. peacekeepers can come in and provide adequate security."

He said that even after the bulk of the U.S. force withdraws, an undetermined number of "residual" U.S. personnel -- such as engineers, logisticians and doctors -- would probably remain behind in Somalia to assist the U.N. peace-keepers and voluntary aid organizations.

The peacekeepers would likely be backed up, General Powell added, by a force of Marines on ships that would remain anchored off the Somali coast "so that the peacekeeping efforts know that there is a posse out there if they need one in the immediate future." "There will always be a level of lawlessness in Somalia," General Powell said. "There are guns all over the country, so there should be no expectation . . . that there would never again be another shooting incident in Mogadishu or elsewhere." He hoped, at best, to leave the country in a "manageable" state.

He said more than 12 countries had pledged to assist with either troops or personnel for the future U.N. peacekeeping operation. They are said to include France, Pakistan, Morocco, Italy, Belgium, Canada, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

General Powell said the first contingents of U.N. peace-keepers could begin arriving in Somalia early in the new year.

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