WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is sending money and other help to war-ravaged Liberia, but says it is unsure of what role U.S. troops might play in a peacekeeping force being arranged for the West African nation.
President Bush promised Wednesday that the United States will help stabilize the country, while stopping short of saying U.S. soldiers would go ashore for peacekeeping duty.
A month after West African nations requested U.S. help in Liberia, Bush said conditions he laid out had not been met.
Liberia's president, Charles Taylor, "must go, cease-fire must be in place, and we will be there to help" the nations of the Economic Community of West African States (search) that have offered troops, Bush said.
A three-ship amphibious group, led by the Iwo Jima and carrying some 2,000 Marines, was expected off Liberia's shores in the next two or three days, a U.S. official said.
But officials have indicated in recent days that most of those Marines may never go ashore. The United States was leaning toward providing a small group of troops to coordinate logistics, communications and transportation, they said.
Depending on the U.S. role decided upon, other kinds of troops from another location might be sent instead, two defense officials said on condition of anonymity.
Bush said at a Wednesday news conference that the United States would help get the West African force in place in Liberia (search), but did not promise soldiers. Defense officials said that was still being studied.
"Certainly, we will have ships offshore," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "We've provided already $10 million in a contract for logistics support. There will be a variety of kinds of support from the United States.
"Whether that involves soldiers deployed on the ground, that's a decision the president will have to make at the appropriate time," Boucher said in a State Department press conference.
Six African countries — Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Benin, Senegal and Togo — have promised a total of 3,250 troops for an eventual 5,000-strong force, according to a statement Wednesday by the regional bloc arranging the force.
The bloc is asking the United States, South Africa, Morocco and Ethiopia to round out the force, although no commitments have been made by those countries. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked the United States to lead the force.
Heavy fighting raged in Liberia's capital of Monrovia (search) despite rebel declarations of a cease-fire, with Taylor's troops battling rebels trying to advance on his downtown stronghold.
Boucher said U.S. officials have been in touch with the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, the smaller of two rebel groups, which opened a second front in fighting and captured the port of Buchanan on Monday.
"We've urged them in the strongest terms to cease their advance," he said.
Boucher said the United States is proposing a U.N. resolution that would grant authority for peacekeepers to support a cease-fire and to provide a secure environment for humanitarian deliveries. It would declare the U.N. Security Council's readiness to move rapidly to establish a multinational stabilization force that could take over from the West African force.
As for American participation, Boucher said: "We're going to support West African states as they go in. ... We haven't decided whether we support that with actual military deployments."
Disputes over funding the emergency mission are partly to blame for the slow deployment of the ECOWAS force. Debt-strapped Nigeria has offered to lead the force but says it needs help with what it expects to be a multimillion-dollar daily tab.
Annan said at the United Nations that Nigeria has indicated the $10 million from the United States is not enough.