Byline: Rowan Scarborough, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
President Bush yesterday ordered a three-ship amphibious force to a position off the coast of war-torn Liberia in anticipation of putting a limited number of U.S. troops ashore to assist West African peacekeepers.
Mr. Bush's order, putting into place more than 2,000 combat-ready Marines, came as the rebel group fighting bloody street battles in the Liberian capital of Monrovia against government troops announced a cease-fire.
Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy said it would maintain "a potent defensive posture in defending its present forward positions," Reuters news agency reported from the capital, where hundreds have died in the past week alone.
The offer to stop fighting surfaced after mortar rounds slammed into the U.S. Embassy compound, as well as homes and schools crowded with refugees. Both the rebels and troops loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor blamed each other for the barrage.
Mr. Bush's order to send the warships eventually may become a commitment to put American boots on the ground in Monrovia to enforce peace. Previously, he ordered a fast-reaction force of Marines from Rota, Spain, into the capital to reinforce the besieged U.S. Embassy and protect American citizens.
"U.S. troops will be there to help [West African troops] go in and serve as peacekeepers necessary to create the conditions so that humanitarian aid can go in and help the people of Liberia," Mr. Bush told reporters at the White House.
The president did not specifically say the troops would go ashore, but defense officials said privately it would be difficult to aid African peacekeepers from a sea base miles way.
"We're deeply concerned that the condition of the Liberian people is getting worse and worse and worse," Mr. Bush said.
What was left unsaid was the size and makeup of the force that would enter Liberia.
In response to the president's order, the Navy is moving the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima and the support vessels USS Carter Hall and USS Nashville from the Mediterranean to the Liberian coast.
The Amphibious Ready Group carries more than 2,000 combat Marines, plus attack helicopters and jet fighters. The Marines specialize in all types of combat, including urban warfare and embassy evacuations.
U.S. European Command, which overseas military operations in West Africa, has been studying troop options that could result in 300 to 1,000 U. …