WASHINGTON — Committing 4,500 federal troops to immediate duty on the streets of Los Angeles, President Bush vowed Friday night to use "whatever force is necessary to restore order" if violence flares anew.
The surprise action was bolstered by a separate presidential order to place nearly 6,000 National Guard forces under federal control to help restore order to the ravaged city.
"What is going on in L.A. must and will stop," Bush pledged in a prime-time, nationally televised address. "As your President, I guarantee you: This violence will end."
Bush had made the decision earlier Friday to send the troops to Los Angeles on a standby basis, but a decision on whether to deploy them was not expected until today. White House officials said Bush made the decision Friday night, however, only moments before delivering his speech, and after speaking by telephone with Gov. Pete Wilson and Mayor Tom Bradley. They said both Wilson and Bradley had requested the federal intervention.
"They indicated that they would like to have a major show of force on the streets tonight to try to bring the situation under control," a senior Administration official said during a late-night White House briefing.
In the address, Bush also announced that a federal grand jury already has issued subpoenas as part of the accelerated Justice Department investigation into whether the beating of Rodney G. King violated U.S. civil rights statutes.
The unusual presidential disclosure was described by White House aides as an attempt by Bush to soothe the destructive anger sparked by the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the case.
But despite what were intended as reassuring words, Bush left no doubt of his determination to maintain a rigid stance in the face of riots that have presented him with perhaps his most trying domestic crisis.
Bush said the commitment of the joint task force of 1,500 Marines from Camp Pendleton and 3,000 soldiers from Ft. Ord would "help restore order" amid continuing "incidents of random terror and lawlessness."
The federal force is to be assisted by 1,000 federal agents, including FBI SWAT teams, U.S. marshals and special border patrol units, who were dispatched to Los Angeles Friday morning.
The agents were put into service immediately, but Bush said Friday night that their numbers could be supplemented by an additional 1,000 agents he put on standby alert.
Under arrangements imposed in an order signed by Bush, the new military force is to be commanded by Maj. Gen. Marvin L. Covault, commander of the Ft. Ord-based 7th Infantry Division. Because of the domestic nature of the duty, the two-star general is to report directly to U.S. Atty. Gen. William P. Barr or his designate, Assistant Atty. Gen. Robert S. Mueller.
A senior Administration official said the Army and Marine infantry forces would be armed with rifles and other light weapons and would operate under rules of engagement authorizing them to "return fire if fired upon."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater had said earlier in the day that federal forces would be employed only if state and local efforts to control the situation were "exhausted." An Administration official would say only Friday night that the White House now expected all such units to be used.
U.S. officials said actual decisions about how the soldiers and Marines should be employed Friday night would be left to tactical commanders. But a senior Administration official said the commanders had been instructed to establish a show of force.
"The forces will be on the streets or moving into the streets tonight," the official said. The units had been ordered to Los Angeles earlier Friday but had been expected to remain in a staging area.
Because of prohibitions against the use of the military in domestic law enforcement, officials said it was unlikely that the troops would be given arrest authority. Instead, they were expected to establish secure cordons from which police officers could operate.
The Oval Office address was Bush's first to the nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union late last year. Apart from a 1989 speech about the dangers of drugs, it was the first time he had chosen the portentous setting to dramatize his concern over a domestic issue.
In outlining his response to the violence some 48 hours after it began, Bush for the most part followed a pattern in which he has blended stern law-and-order rhetoric with a broader appeal for mutual tolerance and respect.
Midway through the speech, he recounted the moving story, reported in Friday's Los Angeles Times, of a "savagely beaten white truck driver, alive tonight because four strangers--four black strangers--came to his aid."
"Together, those four people braved the mob and drove that truck driver to the hospital," the President said. "It is for every one of them that we must rebuild the community of Los Angeles, for these four people and the others like them, who, in the midst of this nightmare, acted with simple human decency."