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Bush may send 500-1,000 troops to Liberia

Demonstrators outside the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia Wednesday encouraged the U.S. to send peacekeeping forces to Liberia.
Demonstrators outside the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia Wednesday encouraged the U.S. to send peacekeeping forces to Liberia.

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Liberians celebrate after the United States said it would not rule out sending troops there. CNN's Jeff Koinange reports.
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• Behind the Scenes: Liberia anything but free 

Area: 43,000 square miles (111,369 square kilometers); a little larger than Ohio

Capital: Monrovia (named for U.S. President James Monroe)

Population (2002 estimate): 3.3 million (95 percent indigenous people; 5 percent descendants of freed American slaves)

Languages: English is official; 16 indigenous

Literacy: 15 percent

Life expectancy: 51.4 years

Economy: Primarily agricultural (rubber, coffee, cocoa, sugar cane) with some mining (iron, diamonds, gold, tin)

Unemployment: 70 percent

Founded: 1822 by the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to resettle freed slaves in Africa.

Independence: 1847, when the American Colonization Society gave up control.

Conflict history: Country was governed by descendants of freed American slaves for 133 years until 1980 when Samuel Doe of the Krahn ethnic group seized power in a coup. In 1989, Charles Taylor, a descendant of the freed slave ruling class, led a revolt that ultimately resulted in Doe's execution. Civil war ensued among several factions, during which an estimated 200,000 people died. The United Nations, United States, African Union and Economic Community of West African States mediated a peace of sorts in 1996. Taylor gained power in a special election in 1997. He has been indicted by a U.N. court investigating war crimes in Sierra Leone. Since 2000, his regime has been under siege by rebels who say they want a return to democracy.

Sources: U.S. State Department, U.S. CIA World Factbook.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush could announce later this week that he is sending 500 to 1,000 peacekeeping troops to Liberia, two senior officials told CNN.

Facing mounting international pressure to have the United States lead a Liberia mission that also would include West African peacekeepers, Bush discussed such a deployment Wednesday, the officials said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others have talked of a U.S. deployment of 2,000 troops, but U.S. officials told CNN any deployment would be no more than half that. (Full story)

The officials said the timing of the announcement could be slowed by efforts to get Liberian President Charles Taylor, who faces war crimes charges by a U.N. court in neighboring Sierra Leone, to step down and leave the war-torn country.

The White House official line is that Taylor should leave now and face war crimes trial later. But Bush used different language Wednesday regarding Taylor, saying simply that he should leave the country.

Many analysts read the new Bush language as a sign the president was prepared to accept Taylor going into exile in a country that would not extradite him to Sierra Leone.

Bush has been reluctant to commit U.S. troops to Liberia, which was founded in 1822 as a settlement for freed American slaves, and hoped West African peacekeepers would be enough, with the possible exception of Marine reinforcements at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia. (Full story)

But Secretary of State Powell has been arguing in favor of a U.S. commitment, sources said -- citing recent peacekeeping commitments by France in the Ivory Coast and Great Britain in Sierra Leone.

Bush leaves this weekend for his first trip to Africa, and the Liberia issue has become a test of his promise to make a commitment to promoting peace, democracy and economic development in Africa, administration officials said.

One senior official said, "There will be a U.S. role, but the details are still in somewhat of a flux."

Another senior official said "it is not sealed" but a force of 500 to no more than 1,000 Army troops was under serious discussion and that there were "strong indications" a final decision in favor of a deployment "will be sooner rather than later."

Despite suggestions by some administration officials to the contrary, neither Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld nor Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers has expressed reservations about involving U.S. troops in Liberia, key aides to both men told CNN.

An aide to Rumsfeld said the defense secretary believes the mission would fit into the category of "lesser contingencies" the Pentagon is prepared to handle. Sources close to Myers said the general shares that view.

Pentagon officials acknowledged forces are stretched thin overseas -- in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans -- but said the small number of troops required for Liberia would not create problems.

But other administration officials said the Pentagon is wary in part because of the humiliating memories of the last major U.S. deployment in Africa -- to Somalia -- which ended in retreat 10 years ago after 18 Americans were killed.

Several senior officials said reports that Bush had already signed orders authorizing a deployment were inaccurate.

But these officials said planning was intensifying, including detailed conversations with the United Nations and with West African nations that would be part of a peacekeeping mission.

Pentagon sources told CNN a unit of 50 U.S. Marines known as a FAST team -- for Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team -- was on standby in Rota, Spain, for possible deployment to reinforce security at the U.S. Embassy.

Several hundred Americans remain in Liberia, where intense fighting between Taylor's government and rebel forces has continued despite a June 17 cease-fire. (Full story)

Nigeria had been working with Taylor on a possible deal for him to take refuge in that country. One problem, however, is that Taylor has agreed to deals before, then backed out.

Officials said the United States was working closely with members of the Economic Community of West African States on diplomatic efforts, particularly Ghana and Nigeria. (Full story)

Comments Tuesday by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer that Bush was considering sending troops provoked a nearly instantaneous reaction in Monrovia, where thousands of people gathered outside the U.S. Embassy to cheer a possible American presence.

"We feel America can bring peace because they are the original founders of this nation, and secondly, they are the superpower of the world," one man said.

CNN correspondents John King, Jamie McIntyre, Barbara Starr and Jeff Koinange and producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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