Bush orders troops to positions off Liberia
Marines would likely assist West African peacekeepers
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush ordered U.S. troops to be positioned off the Liberian coast Friday to support a West African peacekeeping force that is expected to be deployed to the region.
The U.S. force will help peacekeepers "create the conditions so that humanitarian aid can go in and help the people in Liberia," he said.
Bush did not say how large the force would be, but U.S. officials told CNN that more than 2,000 Marines will likely be sent to the region.
The Marines, part of a three-ship amphibious ready group headed by the USS Iwo Jima helicopter carrier that is now in the Mediterranean, will not yet go ashore, sources said.
If they are ordered ashore, the troops will likely provide logistical and communications help to the peacekeepers sent by ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, the sources said.
Several U.S. military experts are on their way from Europe to Nigeria, which has committed the first peacekeeping contingent, U.S. officials told CNN. The experts will meet with Nigerian leaders to discuss what kinds of assistance are needed.
The Marine units can shuttle back and forth from their ship by helicopter, eliminating the need for a base on land, Pentagon officials said. However, Marines don't often do peacekeeping support missions, so the United States is considering sending Army forces to the region as well, the officials said.
Either way, Army Maj. Gen. Thomas Turner will be appointed head of a military joint task force that will be the command element for any operation in the region, the officials said. Turner is commander of the Army's Southern European Task Force.
U.S. OKs $10 million contract
The Bush administration has also committed $10 million for a military contractor to provide on-the-ground logistic support to the peacekeepers, "to include transportation, equipment and communications," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. The firm, Pacific Architects and Engineers, has done U.S.-funded work with West Africa before, including projects in Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire.
The firm might provide supplies from U.S. military warehouses, Boucher said.
Such support could precede the arrival of U.S. troops in the region.
"We are deeply concerned that the condition of the Liberian people is getting worse and worse and worse," Bush said Friday. "Aid can't get to the people. We're worried about the outbreak of disease."
To pave the way for nongovernmental organizations to return to the country and provide critical services, peacekeepers will face one primary task: enforcing a cease-fire between rebel groups and President Charles Taylor's regime.
Rebel groups announced another cease-fire agreement Friday, but a representative for Taylor put no faith in it, saying the rebels have broken cease-fire agreements before.
Spokesman Vaanii Paasewe also cast doubt on whether the embattled leader will follow through on his vow to give up power and leave the country after peacekeepers are in place.
"Considering what has taken place in the last week, all of our options are now open on whether President Taylor will leave power," Paasewe told CNN in a telephone interview. "After the aggressive actions of the rebels in the last week, everything is open for discussion."
Bush, speaking to reporters, reiterated his stance that Taylor "must leave."
He added that the United States is working closely with the United Nations, which "will be responsible for developing a political solution" and for relieving U.S. troops "in short order."
History binds U.S., Liberia
In a written statement, the White House said, "The U.S. role will be limited in time and scope as multinational forces under the United Nations assume the responsibility for peacekeeping and as the United Nations arranges a political transition in Liberia."
The Bush administration remains reluctant to become deeply involved in the volatile country. But the president has cited historical ties between the United States and Liberia as a reason that U.S. involvement is important.
Liberia was founded as a home for freed U.S. slaves. Also, U.S. officials have noted that unstable countries can serve as breeding grounds for terrorist groups, including al Qaeda.
Bush's order comes the same day that the U.N. refugee agency called conditions in Liberia "grave." ( Full story)
Advancing rebels trying to overthrow Taylor have been fighting fierce battles with government troops in the besieged capital, Monrovia. Hundreds of civilians have reportedly died, and refugee camps are overflowing. (Full story)
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' compound in Monrovia "is now jammed with more than 800 desperate and hungry refugees and displaced," the U.N. agency said in a statement.
CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and State Department producer Elise Labott contributed to this report