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U.S. prepares Liberia military options

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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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) -- The U.S. European Command has received a "warning order" from the Pentagon's Joint Staff, telling it to prepare a series of military options and issue a recommendation for U.S. intervention in Liberia.

One military official told CNN "things are moving quickly now."

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday it probably is "going to take some time" before President Bush makes a final decision on sending U.S. troops to the country as the lead element of an international peacekeeping force.

A decision is expected before the president leaves on a trip to Africa early next week. The Liberia issue has become a test of his promise to make a commitment to promoting peace, democracy and economic development in Africa.

Bush discussed the situation with his national security team Thursday morning, and U.S. officials also were taking part in talks in Ghana aimed at trying to resolve Liberia's bloody civil war.

Urgent efforts are under way to try to get Liberian President Charles Taylor to step down, White House officials said. 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.

Some U.S. officials said Bush is committed to having the United States take a peacekeeping role, but key questions -- chief among them Taylor's fate -- need to be resolved before a final decision could be made.

These officials said discussions focus on a U.S. force that would be in the range of 500 to 1,000 troops, heading a peacekeeping force that would consist mostly of Liberia's West African neighbors.

Various military options are being prepared under the leadership of Gen. Jim Jones, head of the U.S. European Command.

These include sending a small group of Marines to reinforce the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia to sending a larger force of hundreds, Pentagon officials said.

Also on the table are options for providing communications support to African peackeeping troops.

The U.S. is under international pressure to lead a Liberia mission but 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, Interactive: The U.S. and Liberia)

But Secretary of State Colin 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.

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 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)

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

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