WASHINGTON – The Bush administration appears to be gearing up to quell the dire humanitarian situation in Liberia (search), as senior defense officials told Fox News Wednesday the United States might send a "fast team" to the country 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.
There were conflicting reports on whether or not an official decision had been made on the mission, which will likely be carried out by Marines. It was first reported that President Bush had decided to send the military team to Liberia, but later reports suggested he had made no decision.
"It is premature to say an announcement is forthcoming in the next day or so," Secretary of State Colin Powell said after consulting with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
"We're exploring all options," President Bush said.
There is a "fast-team" of 50-75 Marines, specifically trained to provide security to the U.S. Embassy, on standby in Spain, according to defense officials.
Senior officials told Fox News last week that the U.S. ambassador to Liberia had 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 last week 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.
President Bush on Wednesday lamented the human suffering and unrest in Liberia, but stopped short of saying whether his administration should send peacekeepers to the African nation -- an idea opposed by a U.S. military already committed to other world trouble spots.
"The people are suffering there," Bush said. "The political instability is such that people are panicking ... but the good news is there's a cease-fire in place now."
Bush said Secretary of State Colin Powell would work closely with the United Nations to determine the best way to keep the cease-fire in place. He called again for Liberian President Charles Taylor (search) to leave the country.
"We're exploring all options as to how to keep the situation peaceful and stable," he said. "One thing has to happen: Mr. Taylor needs to leave the country. ... In order for there to be peace and stability in Liberia, Charles Taylor needs to leave now."
Taylor told CBS Radio on Wednesday that U.S. troops would be welcomed inside the country, that he would be willing to leave Liberia in about three months and called for the United Nations war crimes charges against him to be dropped.
I'm not sure if "asking the democratically elected president to leave is the solution, but I will leave," he said.
"Of course," Taylor added later, "that is subject to hearing what President Bush has to say."
Powell, in an appearance on Fox News' Sean Hannity's syndicated radio program, said: "The president has not made any decisions yet."
Among the open questions is how many troops West African countries would be willing to provide as peacekeepers, Powell said.
Powell told a reporter Wednesday morning that Bush's top foreign policy advisers were expected to make their recommendations on Liberia to the president very soon.
But the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said as far as he knew, no recommendations had been given to the president yet.
Annan wants U.S. troops committed to peacekeeping in Liberia to give more "heft" to the operation, Boucher said.
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.
But with the apparent declaration of a cease-fire among several warring parties, the forces were pulled out, as was the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (search), which had been sitting off the Liberian coast with a Marine expeditionary force aboard. The Kearsarge returned to Norfolk, Va., this week.
Powell talked by telephone to Annan twice on Tuesday, while the U.N. chief was traveling in Europe, and expects to talk to Annan again late Wednesday, Boucher said.
A senior U.S. official said the discussions centered on sorting out both military and political issues. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the talks had not reached a point where Bush could decide on whether to dispatch American troops.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld attended a White House meeting Wednesday morning on the issue after the National Security Council Tuesday failed to agree on a course of action in the West African nation, officials said.
Rumsfeld is opposed to international proposals that the United States send 2,000 troops to head 3,000 peacekeepers from various other African countries, a senior defense official said.
Still, Rumsfeld took with him to Wednesday's meeting a contingency plan for such a deployment, should the president order it. The Pentagon routinely works up and keeps on hand such plans for numerous problems around the world.
The current round of fighting in Liberia began three years ago as rebels began trying to oust Taylor, who won contested elections and took the presidency in 1997 after a 1989-96 civil war. Fighting killed hundreds of civilians in Monrovia just last month, and the war has displaced more than 1 million Liberians.
Because of the violence -- but apart from the question of U.S. peacekeepers -- several dozen U.S. Marines have for days been on standby at a Spanish military base in case they are needed for quick deployment as extra security at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia or to evacuate Americans.
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 a violent and troubled postwar Iraq.
Defense officials say they are trying to avoid committing troops to Liberia as well.
Rumsfeld also doubts there is a compelling U.S. interest in Liberia's affairs, aides say.
One senior administration official said Bush was reluctant to send troops purely as peacekeepers. But if the troops were given a clear mission as part of a defined coalition, Bush might be more inclined, this official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another administration official said the White House did not want to take the military option off the table for fear of making headlines just before Bush starts a trip to Africa next Monday.
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.
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 and James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.