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SLUG: 2-305823 Pentagon / Liberia (L)

DATE= 7/25/03







INTRO: President Bush has ordered U-S forces to take up position off the coast of Liberia. But V-O-A Defense Correspondent Alex Belida reports Pentagon officials stress there is still no decision on whether American soldiers will take direct part in any peacekeeping operation in the strife-torn West African country.

TEXT: Pentagon officials say the amphibious assault ship U-S-S Iwo Jima, now steaming through the Mediterranean, will be taking up position in the waters off Liberia in a matter of days.

But these officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say it has still not been decided whether the Iwo Jima or any of the U-S Marines aboard the vessel will ultimately take part in any peacekeeping operation.

Instead, they tell V-O-A the ship's movement will buy the Bush administration additional time to consider a variety of military options -- some of which, they admit, could see the Iwo Jima depart the region without conducting any activities.

The officials decline to give any further details. They suggest Mr. Bush is still waiting for more information from the U-S military assessment teams now in the region -- one in Liberia checking on the humanitarian and security situations and a second which has been in Ghana to evaluate the capabilities of West African troops to undertake a peacekeeping mission.

The West African regional group ECOWAS has promised a peacekeeping force with some 13-hundred Nigerian troops expected to be the vanguard of an eventual force of more than three thousand.

A senior Pentagon official notes the White House announcement on the repositioning of U-S forces off Liberia links the move "to support the deployment of an ECOWAS force once it is generated."

The White House announcement also stresses any U-S role "will be limited in time and scope."

Top Pentagon officials have expressed some reluctance to get involved in Liberia given the demands on U-S forces elsewhere and the dangers that could confront American soldiers in the West African country.

Speaking to Congress this past week, General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of Liberia --- quoting now --- "It's not a pretty picture."

His deputy, General Peter Pace, called it a potentially very dangerous situation, akin to the U-S involvement in Somalia 10 years ago. (Signed)


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