WASHINGTON – President Bush is awaiting reports from the U.S. military assessment team on the ground in Liberia before deciding whether to send U.S. troops to the West African nation, the White House said Monday.
Twenty U.S. military specialists in civil affairs and a 15-member anti-terrorist Marine detachment are doing the legwork on the ground before the president decides whether sending peacekeeping forces will help the humanitarian situation. The White House said the president's decision will be based on the moral and strategic mission to be achieved.
Liberia has been embroiled in civil unrest and war since 1989 when Charles Taylor overthrew the leadership of Samuel Doe. Taylor said Sunday that he would accept asylum offered by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (search) on Saturday, but would not say when he would quit power.
Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke with Obasanjo on Saturday, but no details of that conversation were released. On Monday, Powell spoke with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and several governments about details surrounding Taylor's departure.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday that Taylor's promise to leave "remains encouraging" but it has been said before. Fleischer said the United States wants to see action, not words "so that stability can be achieved."
Bush has said that Taylor must leave before any U.S. peacekeepers arrive, but one of Liberia's leading senators and special envoy to the United States Tom Wowieyu said that Taylor wants a U.S.-led peacekeeping force on the ground before he departs.
"We hail President Bush's call and his attention that is now focused on Liberia. Americans should [support] that focus. Without America, there can be no solution in Liberia because all the other countries, including the U.N. would not do anything unless America say so," Wowieyu said.
Several administration officials said Bush is not bound by his schedule to determine when troops would go. The president was leaving Monday evening for a five-day trip to Africa. Diplomats from France, Britain and the United Nations, as well as leaders of both sides in Liberia's years of civil war, have appealed for Americans to lead a peacekeeping force.
Taylor's regime has caused some harrowing moments for many in Liberia as well as for two Virginia-based missionaries who went there before Taylor's takeover in 1989.
Brian and Ruth Johnson of Virginia Beach told Fox News that under Taylor, they risked their lives to save women and children fleeing rape and death by warring factions. Brian Johnson said that in 1996, rebels put a grenade to his head and threatened to blow him up if he continued to offer sanctuary. In another incident, Ruth Johnson's father was killed.
The Johnsons agree that Taylor should step down, and the United Nations and United States should establish an interim or transitional form of government.
Whether Taylor's departure would affect his status with the United Nations is still unknown. He has been charged with war crimes for his support of a rebel movement in Sierra Leone that was noted for committing atrocities against civilians.
A senior U.S. official said the issue is between Obasanjo and the U.N. prosecutor. Obasanjo has said he sees the indictment as an obstacle to a durable peace in Liberia.
Fomer Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen said U.S. troops would have very little problem in Liberia if they did go. The nation, set up in 1847 by former U.S. slaves, would like U.S. support to help establish democratic institutions and infrastructure.
"It is not Somalia and it is not Iraq," Cohen said, referring to other trouble spots where U.S. soldiers have been sent. "They've been trying to became a colony of the U.S. for 100 years but we won't let them."
But some congressional leaders are concerned about sending more Americans into harm's way.
"I would be very cautious to sending any troops to Liberia now," said Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "We have basically three wars ongoing -- one against the war against terrorism that is international, obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq, where we just came back from a three-day visit in terms of the reconstruction and we're into a anti-guerrilla warfare effort there. The next 100 days will be crucial."
Senate Armed Service Committee leader John Warner said that sending U.S. troops into Liberia could "precipitate another conflict as it did in Somalia in 1991."
"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," Warner said in a television interview.
Congressional approval could benefit Bush by forcing lawmakers to share the responsibility for such a mission, but White House officials showed no taste for such a vote.
"We're getting ahead of ourselves," White House spokesman Jimmy Orr said. "This presupposes the president has made a decision to send troops. He hasn't."
Bush "still has to collect additional information, and is not guided by any artificial timetable or deadline," Orr added.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said military leaders 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," said the chairman, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers.
"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.
West African nations have offered 3,000 troops and have suggested that the United States contribute another 2,000.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that while no decision has been made, the United States has already offered help with disaster relief and military assessments.
"The United States is willing to participate with them in that effort to bring stability and peace to the people of Liberia," he said.
Fox News' Kelly Wright and the Associated Press contributed to this report.