WASHINGTON – The leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee (search) said Sunday they want President Bush to get congressional approval before any U.S. troops are sent to Liberia.
At the same time, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the military leadership he would prefer that West African armies take the lead in any effort to end the Liberian conflict and police the peace.
"We're always prepared, in case of U.S. citizens and our folks that are on official duty in the embassy and so forth, to do a noncombatant evacuation of those individuals," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers (search) said.
"Beyond that, I think we'd really like to see the states in the region help with this particular problem," he told Fox News Sunday.
Bush, who leaves Monday on a five-nation tour in Africa, has been under growing international pressure to send troops to participate in a peacekeeping force once the rebellion ends. West African nations have said they will provide 3,000 soldiers for the mission but have suggested the United States send 2,000 more.
About 15 U.S. military civil affairs specialists from European Command headquarters in Germany were leaving late Sunday for Liberia along with a security detail of 10 to 15 more people from a U.S. naval base in Spain, a command spokesman said.
Master Sgt. John Tomassi said the civil affairs team would assess the humanitarian needs in Liberia and report back to command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. It was not immediately clear how long the team would remain in Liberia.
Sen. John Warner, the Armed Services Committee chairman, said that because of the chaotic conditions of the past few years in Liberia, "We've got to think through very, very carefully the insertion of U.S. forces in there.
"It's a presidential decision, but I would say to the Senate leadership, and most respectfully to the president, I would want a vote in the Congress before we begin to commit substantial forces into that region," he told NBC's Meet the Press.
Warner said the size of the deployment would not matter.
"Whether it's 500 Marines, ... a thousand or 2,000, they're going into harm's way," he said. "I think Congress should be a partner and bear the responsibility of this very, very important decision."
The top Democrat on Warner's committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, said on NBC that he, too, was concerned about the risk.
"I think, however, that if this is a U.N.-authorized mission, that we surely ought to consider participating in it. But it would be wise, as Senator Warner has mentioned, for there to be a vote of Congress before that is done."
There already has been a brief U.S. military deployment.
The Navy diverted the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship, to stand off Monrovia last month for any necessary evacuation of Americans. The Kearsarge, based in Norfolk, Va., and its contingent of 2,000 Marines were withdrawn after an uneasy cease-fire was took hold in the embattled capital of Monrovia.
Myers, in an interview taped Thursday and broadcast Sunday, said only a few Americans who represent Washington were still in the Liberian capital, along with some other U.S. citizens. "Right now I don't think there's a threat to their well-being," he said.
Myers said if American troops were sent to Liberia, it "would be the hope that it would be of short duration."
Once President Charles Taylor has gone, he said, "there has to be some sort of political process then that replaces and provides a government for Liberia. And that probably is in the short term."
Negotiations are under way that could lead to temporary asylum in Nigeria for Taylor, a former warlord who began the off-and-on civil war in 1989 and is wanted on war crimes charges.
Bush has demanded that Taylor leave, saying, "I won't take `no' for an answer."
Asked in the Fox interview whether U.S. forces might remove Taylor by force, Myers said: "No, I don't think that would be one of our options."