WASHINGTON – While President Bush's closest advisers are still reportedly divided on whether the United States should send peacekeeping troops to Liberia (search), the president said Friday that a team of military experts is going to Africa to assess whether the troops' presence would help bring stability to the war-torn nation.
It's questionable whether Bush will make a decision to commit troops to the region before beginning his five-nation trip to Africa on Monday.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer (search) said the team would "work with nations in the area" to determine the best approach to calming the West African country and to decide whether American troops should be sent there as part of an international peacekeeping force.
The decision was announced by Fleischer as the president flew to Ohio to take part in Fourth of July events.
Meanwhile, Liberia's President Charles Taylor, (search) under U.S. pressure to quit, accepted Nigeria's offer of asylum.
Earlier Friday, Taylor agreed to step down but said he wanted to wait until an international force was in place.
Fleischer said "there still is no decision made by the president" on whether to commit U.S. troops. Information that the White House gets from the Pentagon assessment team will help Bush make that decision, he said.
The White House was still awaiting its own confirmation of Taylor's promise to leave, but appeared dismissive of the leader's conditions.
"The president encourages Taylor to back up his encouraging words with deeds," Fleischer said. "Stability is important, but stability will be impossible to achieve unless Mr. Taylor leaves. ... The president has said he needs to leave now, quickly, soon, and that's where it stands."
But Bush's spokesman also left open the possibility that the administration would be flexible on the question of Taylor's departure.
"If it's true, the exact timing will be developed in due course," Fleischer said.
The spokesman confirmed that the United States, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, is deeply involved in ongoing talks about how to persuade Taylor to step down and where he would go.
Fleischer didn't rule out the president reaching his decision before he departs Monday for his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa.
Asked whether in fact all signs seemed to be pointing toward a commitment of U.S. troops, Fleischer said that all the necessary preparations were being made so the military would be ready if and when Bush makes that decision.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is skeptical about sending U.S. troops to the West African country to help maintain a cease-fire and quell the humanitarian crisis there. Powell is busily consulting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and African governments on how U.S. troops would fit in with African forces.
Powell said he hasn't yet given his recommendation to Bush but the National Security Council (search) will continue to review the situation.
"The president, as you heard, is exploring all of the options: political options, diplomatic options and military options, as well. We have provided the president no recommendation yet and therefore he has not made a decision," Powell told reporters in Washington Thursday.
"We also realize that there is a severe humanitarian crisis emerging in [the capital] Monrovia and other parts of Liberia that has to be dealt with, and we are also concerned about the security of our embassy officials."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States was in contact with Nigeria, which has offered haven to Taylor.
At the White House Thursday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said stability in Liberia "could be vital to progress on the continent."
The U.S. military commander in Europe has been ordered to begin planning for possible American intervention in Liberia.
A directive called a "warning order" was sent overnight to Gen. James Jones, asking him to give the Pentagon his estimate of how the situation in the West African nation might be handled, defense officials said. The nation is beset by violence emerging from rebel forces angry that Taylor has not ceded power and left the country as he earlier pledged to do.
Taylor won contested elections and took the presidency in 1997 after a 1989-96 civil war (search). Fighting killed hundreds of civilians in Monrovia just last month, and the war has displaced more than 1 million Liberians.
Pentagon officials said that a warning order does not suggest that action is imminent.
Civil war has raged in Liberia for 10 of the last 14 years and a shaky cease-fire is in place. On Wednesday, Taylor said he would not vacate the country immediately, but would leave in three months time. He also called for the United Nations to drop war crimes charges against him.
He said he's not sure if "asking the democratically elected president to leave is the solution, but I will leave."
"Of course," Taylor added later, "that is subject to hearing what President Bush has to say."
Aides say Bush is going to take his time to decide whether to send any troops.
The situation will not "turn around just because of one presidential exhortation," Fleischer said.
The United Nations and some of Liberia's neighbors have urged the U.S. to send a peacekeeping force of 2,000 to join an additional 1,000 troops from other nations.
Among other things, the president is weighing whether to send any troops and if so, whether it would be a "fast team" of about 50 to 75 Marines used to secure the U.S. embassy in Monrovia or a larger force to serve as peacekeepers.
"We have the green light to do something in Liberia; we are working on that something right now," a senior defense official told Fox News on Wednesday.
A "fast-team" specifically trained to provide security to the U.S. Embassy is on standby in Spain, according to defense officials.
Senior officials told Fox News last week that the U.S. ambassador to Liberia requested deployment of the Marine "fast team" shortly after two rocket-propelled grenade rounds exploded outside the main embassy compound in Monrovia (search), killing several Liberians who had lined up nearby.
European Command (search) (EUCOM) would most likely take the lead in deploying any larger forces to Liberia.
EUCOM told Fox News that there were several units it could deploy to Liberia if the order came from Washington. But it said none were nearby and it would take some time to get the troops in place.
The president will visit Africa next week but not Liberia, a nation with U.S. ties that date back to 1822. That was the year the United States sent soldiers to escort ashore freed American slaves who founded the country with a U.S.-style Declaration of Independence.
As recently as the 1980s, Liberia served as a base for U.S. covert activities in Africa, and President Reagan welcomed its president to the White House.
Just two weeks ago there were several U.S. assets in the area, with about 450 U.S. troops "on the ground" in Monrovia, elsewhere in Liberia and in surrounding countries to monitor the rapidly changing combat situation, and to assist French efforts to evacuate Western civilians.
The U.S. military has plenty on its plate without sending troops to Liberia.
More than 10,000 American troops are still working in and around Afghanistan, and nearly 150,000 troops are stationed in violent and troubled postwar Iraq.
Despite U.S. reluctance, thousands of Liberians celebrated outside the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia late Tuesday as rumors spread about possible U.S. intervention.
"No more Taylor, we want Bush, we want peace," crowds chanted.
Besides Annan, France, Britain and both sides in Liberia's fighting also have pushed for an American role in a peace force.
Fox News' Bret Baier, Ian McCaleb, Teri Schultz and James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.