WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. official predicted yesterda that U.S. troops will be able to transfer most of the responsibility for securing Somalian relief to the United Nations in about six weeks.
His timetable, more precise than any offered previously by the United States, came a day after Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said that U.S. troops would start withdrawing toward the end of this month, shortly after President-elect Bill Clinton's inauguration.
The transfer to the United Nations would mean that most, if not all, U.S. ground forces could be withdrawn, although the United States intends to keep support forces in Somalia and Marines offshore in case they are needed.
But before a withdrawal decision is made, the composition and role of a U.N. peacekeeping force will have to be decided by contributing nations and the U.N. Security Council. Some of the countries that have contributed forces have indicated they would keep them there as part of a U.N. force.
The official's prediction came as U.S. special envoy Robert Oakley, the chief liaison among the U.S. military, the United Nations and Somalis, outlined a broad U.S.-led pacification and leadership-building role intended to make the transfer to the U.N. as smooth as possible.
By the time of the change, U.N. forces will be well enough equipped and entrenched that there will be little noticeable difference, he said.
"The United States is not in this just to turn around one day and say, 'OK, we're going home,' and allow it to collapse," he said.
Mr. Oakley, who will return to Somalia later this week, said that now that more U.S. troops have arrived and have greater mobility, they will intensify collecting heavy weapons in Mogadishu, the capital, and in the countryside.
U.S. officials have avoided using the term "disarming" because of the strong Somalian attachment to their weapons. But troops will step up the collection not only of "technicals," vehicles with gun mounts, but mortars, recoilless rifles, rocket launchers and antitank weapons, he said.
Deprived of such arms, Somali warlords "shrink" in stature, opening the way for others, such as tribal elders, to assume positions of responsibility, Mr. Oakley said.
In Baidoa, he said, a local council composed of women, elders, and religious and political leaders spelled out specific projects they wanted accomplished by coalition forces. "And we're undertaking those," he said.
"What we're trying to do is take away the most dangerous weapons, thereby changing the balance from war to peace and from empowerment by weapons to empowerment by other means," he said.
The arms won't be destroyed, but turned over to the U.N. force for safekeeping until a national army is formed. But by the time that happens, the weapons will be useless, he said.
But troops still haven't rounded up all the heavy weapons and arms caches that they know exist in Mogadishu, let alone in the countryside.
"Between Kismayu on the coast and Bardera up in the norththere's a particularly messy region which has two or three armies in it," he said. "We're not quite sure how that's going to pan out."
Development of local leadership and a weakening of the power of the warlords is just a step in the process of national reconciliation, Mr. Oakley stressed. To the extent that warring parties are now moving to settle their differences peacefully, this has already begun, he said.