WASHINGTON — President Bush sent a seven-member Marine Corps team into war-ravaged Liberia on Wednesday, a small deployment that symbolizes the narrowly defined role his administration envisions for U.S. troops in the African nation.
The team, the first U.S. troops to serve in support of a West African-led peace force in Liberia, arrived by helicopter in the capital, Monrovia, from Navy warships off the coast. If not for its security escort, the team could have fit in a single helicopter.
The military liaison team is not expected to expand much beyond 20 members, Pentagon officials said. The Marines join several dozen American troops who were sent to protect the U.S. Embassy in the capital amid some of the worst fighting in Liberia's 14-year civil war.
Bush, speaking to reporters in Crawford, Texas, said the troops were meant to help the West African force "go in and provide conditions for humanitarian relief to arrive, whether it be by sea or air."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Liberian deployment -- In an Aug. 7 article in Section A on the deployment of U.S. Marines to Liberia, The Times inaccurately reported that several thousand troops from the Economic Community of West African States were in the country. In fact, as of Wednesday, 348 Nigerian troops were in the capital, Monrovia, members of an 880-member battalion that is expected to be fully deployed in Liberia by Aug. 17.
Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was at his side, said they still wanted Liberian President Charles Taylor to leave the country before any additional U.S. troops were committed.
Pentagon officials said no decision had been made on whether to send in more troops over time. But unless the security situation further deteriorates, defense officials said on condition of anonymity, U.S. forces would remain at or near their current number until U.N. peacekeeping troops arrive in October.
The administration's wariness on Liberia, despite weeks of prodding from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others, stems in part from a military stretched thin with commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The memory of a 1993 firefight in Somalia that left 18 U.S. troops dead has also remained fresh, serving as a reminder that the woes of lawless African nations are not easily or quickly resolved.
Critics of limited deployment have argued that the United States bears a responsibility to Liberia because of the nations' special relationship. Liberia was founded in the 19th century by freed American slaves.
The limited commitment, if it continues, would appear to mark a victory for the Pentagon over the State Department, whose managers have argued that sending a significant number of peacekeeping troops into Liberia would be a low-cost way of signaling U.S. concerns beyond the immediate interests of American defense policy.
The head of the Economic Community of West African States, Mohammed ibn Chambas, said in Nigeria that Taylor would formally announce his intention today to resign and take asylum in Nigeria.
Taylor has remained in Liberia despite repeated promises to leave. Powell said Nigerian peacekeeping troops, who began arriving in Liberia in recent days, had begun to "establish a sense of security and, I think, put hope back in the hearts of the Liberian people. And we want to support them and assist them, as the president said."
ECOWAS now has a battalion of several thousand troops in the country and expects a second battalion to arrive from Nigeria as early as next week to secure the airport and ports.
The Pentagon is equipping and training military companies of about 100 troops each from Senegal and several other nations for a peacekeeping force expected to eventually number between 10,000 and 20,000.
An initial peacekeeping force of about 200 West African soldiers will not move from the airport to the center of Monrovia for several days. But the mere presence of the soldiers has seemingly been enough to silence the guns.
"I'm pleased at what ECOWAS has been able to do," Powell said. "The Nigerians showed up in good order, more forces are arriving, and they're starting to establish a sense of security."
Bush came into office in 2000 arguing that the United States had too many foreign military commitments and needed to scale back. Although that changed after the Sept. 11 attacks, the administration has continued its efforts to limit the U.S. role in some places.
"The truth of the matter is the Bush administration wants to stay out of Liberia and Sierra Leone and any other nation where there is an open-ended need for help," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst for the Lexington Institute, a public-policy group based in Arlington, Va.
"If you do Liberia, why not Rwanda? Why not Zaire? Africa is a bottomless pit of potential commitments."
Times staff writers Vicki Kemper in Crawford and Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.