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Liberia Peace, Then a Vote

August 13, 2003

Shed no tears for Charles Taylor, who, as warlord and then president, wreaked havoc on Liberia for more than a decade before going into exile Monday. He threatened to return to the ravaged land someday; better he should stand trial for the war crimes for which he has been indicted.

Unfortunately, the departure of Taylor -- whose implied threat of unending war was sufficient to get Liberians to elect him president in 1997 -- did not stop the violence between competing militias. The continued fighting reinforces the argument against U.S. military intervention, except to give logistical support to West African soldiers trying to institute a cease-fire.

President Bush repeatedly demanded Taylor's ouster but did not promise a sizable contingent of troops if he left. He is correct that U.S. troops have their hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan; the memory of 18 soldiers killed in Somalia a decade ago when a humanitarian mission escalated into pursuit of a warlord also should induce caution.

West African nations contributing troops to intervene in Liberia deserve credit. Soldiers from Nigeria, which is sheltering Taylor, have replaced ragtag government militia at several checkpoints in Monrovia, the capital. Too often African leaders have intervened in neighboring countries by stealthily backing rebel forces, rather than coalescing to remove murderous dictators like Uganda's Idi Amin.

One rebel faction, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, originally claimed its intention was to drive Taylor from office. But when he left and turned the office over to his vice president, the faction said it wanted a stake in government. It wouldn't relinquish control of the port, then said it would.

Another faction continued fighting Tuesday and said it was responding to attacks by government militias. The violence contradicted the claim of John Kufuor, president of Ghana, a day earlier that "the war in Liberia has ended." He and the presidents of Nigeria and South Africa were instrumental in persuading Taylor -- who launched a war in 1989 that killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of Liberians -- to go into exile.

The U.S. State Department said it would work with African nations to plan elections for a new government. The difficult but necessary task will be to bring peace so balloting can occur.

The Nigerian troops in Liberia are a vanguard of an expected 3,250 that eventually will give way to a United Nations force. It will be the soldiers' job to enforce a cease-fire that will let elections be held. Washington should help pay for peacekeepers and the election but beware of sending large numbers of U.S. troops.

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