WASHINGTON - The United States is preparing for the possible deployment of hundreds of troops to Liberia to lead a multinational force to maintain a fragile cease-fire, allow for the return of relief groups and help pave the way for a stable government in the strife-torn West African nation, Bush administration officials said.
A senior State Department official said no final decision has been made because President Bush wants a number of conditions met before he dispatches an American military force.
Those conditions, the official said, include troop commitments from West African countries and a plan to be worked out by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others to force Liberian President Charles Taylor to leave the country.
Officials were uncertain about the number of U.S. troops that might be sent, although some reports said it could be as many as 1,000 to join what could be several thousand soldiers from African nations.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with Bush yesterday and is working out the details with senior military officers, said one U.S. official, who requested anonymity. Bush "is poised to send troops and the Pentagon is working the options," the official said, "meaning the numbers, roles and where [the troops] would come from."
"It's moving but it's not done," said another administration official. "There's a number of different pieces, and I would be surprised to see them all coming together tomorrow."
Bush, who leaves Monday on a weeklong trip to five African nations, not including Liberia, was noncommittal yesterday about sending U.S. forces.
"We're looking at all options," he told reporters. "I've tasked the secretary of state to talk to Kofi Annan on how best to deal with Liberia. We're concerned when we see suffering, people who are suffering there. ... But the good news is there's a cease-fire in place."
Bush reiterated that Liberia's president must step down and leave the country. Taylor took office after a contested election in 1997, after an eight-year civil war. During the past month fighting in the capital city, Monrovia, has killed hundreds while more than 1 million Liberians have been displaced.
"In order for there to be peace and stability in Liberia, Charles Taylor needs to leave now," Bush said.
Administration officials have said there is concern about sending in U.S. forces while Taylor is still in the country and there is an effort to get him to leave before the introduction of American ground forces.
Another administration official said, "The force is to stabilize the situation in Liberia and allow a transitional political process to get under way."
The introduction of U.S. and other foreign forces into Liberia would require authorization from the U.N. Security Council under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows members to send troops for international peace and security operations.
Annan, together with the leaders of West African and European nations, has been calling for U.S. troops - as many as 2,000 - to lead a force that would include 3,000 soldiers from West African nations.
Annan wants U.S. troops committed to peacekeeping in Liberia to give more "heft" to the operation, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, on WMAL radio here, said, "The president has not made any decisions yet." And, after talking with Annan yesterday, Powell said: "It is premature to say an announcement is forthcoming in the next day or two." Officials say the president would like to announce his decision before he leaves for Africa.
Rumsfeld has been reluctant to get involved in Liberia, his aides said, saying he sees no compelling U.S. interest there and fears an open-ended mission at a time when the U.S. military is stretched from Kosovo to Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq alone there are 146,000 U.S. troops.
But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer indicated yesterday that such sentiments might be overcome by events. "We do legitimately fear a humanitarian problem, a humanitarian crisis, as a result of the suffering that is going on in Liberia," he told reporters.
Administration officials have said there are confirmed cases of cholera in Liberia with fears that the deadly water-borne disease could quickly spread. International aid groups have been unable to provide relief because of the gunbattles in the country, particularly in the capital.
Some in the State Department reject the Pentagon's reluctance to get involved in the West African nation. The United States is seen by African and European leaders as having a special responsibility for Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves in 1847, State Department officials note, adding that the country was also a long-time source of rubber for U.S. tire companies.