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White House Considers Role in Liberia

July 1, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Bush administration officials discussed Liberia’s troubles Tuesday but wouldn’t say whether the United States will answer growing international appeals and send troops to help end more than a decade of almost continuous civil war.

President Bush and his National Security Council reached no conclusions in their Tuesday morning discussions of the Liberian situation, a U.S. official said. The president did not mention the issue in an afternoon speech on the global role of the U.S. military.

Twice Tuesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer read a carefully calibrated statement on Liberia that sidestepped questions about whether Bush would deploy troops in the West African nation.

``The United States is actively discussing what the next steps should be to help the parties to meet their obligations to cooperate with the joint verification team that is in place to ensure that the cease-fire holds,″ Fleischer said.

Another White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration was reluctant to take the military option off the table, for fear of making headlines just before Bush starts a trip to Africa on Monday.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has suggested the United States take a leadership role in peacekeeping. West African leaders asked Monday for 2,000 American troops to head a predominantly African force to stop the turmoil and keep the peace. The Africans said they want an answer before President Bush leaves for the continent.

France, Britain and both sides in Liberia’s fighting also have pushed for an American role in a peace force for the country founded by freed American slaves in the 1820s.

The current round of fighting in Liberia began three years ago as rebels began trying to oust President Charles Taylor, who won contested elections and took the presidency in 1997 after a 1989-96 civil war.

Fighting killed hundreds of trapped civilians in the capital, Monrovia, just last month, and the war has displaced more than 1 million Liberians.

Fleischer said the administration has seen encouraging signs of calm.

``The situation in Liberia has been eased, and there’s quiet and calm on the streets of Monrovia recently as a result of the international community coming together to work toward the cease-fire,″ Fleischer said. ``The president wants to work with the international community _ we will play a role in that _ to try to bring stability to a post-Taylor government in Liberia.″

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld opposes sending U.S. troops, according to his aides, because of the heavy commitment of U.S. forces in other parts of the world. Rumsfeld also doubts there is a compelling U.S. interest in Liberia’s affairs, these aides say.

At U.N. headquarters Monday, U.S. deputy ambassador James Cunningham told the Security Council during closed consultations that the United States wants three conditions met for further discussion about the nature of a peacekeeping force.

According to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity, Cunningham said Washington would insist that Taylor give up power and turn himself over to a special U.N. court in Sierra Leone and that a cease-fire be in place that can win international support.

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