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Bush suggests he will limit U.S. military work in Africa
PRETORIA, South Africa -- President Bush suggested Wednesday that any U.S. military help in ending brutal civil unrest in Liberia might consist mostly of advisers and trainers to avoid stretching American forces too thinly around the globe.
"We won't overextend our troops, period," Bush said at a joint news conference with South African President Thabo Mbeki, who had pressed him on what role the United States would play in the crisis.
African nations want the United States to do more to end the bloodshed in the western Africa nation. But U.S. lawmakers, including some leading Republicans, have questioned the wisdom of yet another major overseas military entanglement with so many troops already on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Still weighing a final decision, Bush noted that the Pentagon had already trained African peacekeepers, including those from Nigeria and Senegal.
"It's in our interest that we continue that strategy so that we don't ever get overextended," he said.
Bush has invited U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the head of U.N. peacekeeping and the head of U.N. political affairs to the White House on Monday, according to a United Nations official in Washington. While it was not clear that Liberia was the topic, Annan has said in the past that he who would like to see the United States lead a multinational peacekeeping force there.
On the second leg of a five-nation Africa trip, Bush promoted his $15 billion, five-year plan to combat AIDS and proposals to increase trade with sub-Saharan Africa. His first stop was Tuesday in Senegal. Still ahead: visits to Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria.
Also on Bush's agenda was the continuing strife in Zimbabwe, where there has been violence and economic upheaval aggravated by President Robert Mugabe's refusal to pursue democratic reform. Bush appealed to Mbeki to step his pressure on Mugabe to restore democracy to South Africa's neighbor in southern Africa .
Mbeki has come under some U.S. criticism for not exerting enough pressure on Mugabe. Still, Bush voiced support for Mbeki, saying he was in touch with the parties in Zimbabwe and was making progress.
"I think Mr. Mbeki can be an honest broker," Bush said.
At the news conference, Bush also defended anew his decision to go to war with Iraq, even though the White House earlier this week conceded his assertion in his January State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium from Niger was based on false information.
"One thing is for certain, he's not trying to buy anything right now," Bush said.
White House aides said the Iraqi war did not come up in the talks between Bush and Mbeki, who was critical of the U.S.-led military action there. But with U.S. troops in Iraq coming under increasing attacks, questions have been raised at home about whether Bush should commit still more troops to easing civil unrest in Liberia.
Lawmakers of both parties have said that Bush should first get congressional approval for such an action.
Bush has been under growing international pressure to send troops to participate in a peacekeeping force once the rebellion in Liberia ends. West African nations have said they will provide 3,000 soldiers for the mission but have suggested the United States send 2,000 more.
Both Bush and Mbeki suggested that the U.S.contribution might be mainly of a non-combat variety.
"We need a lot of support, logistics-wise and so on," Mbeki said.
Mbeki said that the military burden in Liberia peacekeeping "really ought to principally fall on us as Africans."
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the president was considering the appropriate U.S. role. He said Bush has told world leaders that he intends to assist Liberia, a nation that was founded in the early 1800s by freed U.S. slaves and has retained close links with the United States.
Rumsfeld noted that "assessment teams" requested by the president are still in the region. Bush has said he will not make a final call until these teams report back.
On Wednesday, U.S. military advisers came face-to-face with the dreadful cost of Liberia's war, wading through wards at the once-prestigious John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia that overflowed with wounded -- some nursing bandaged stumps.
Many U.S. Democrats, and even some Republicans, have been wary of a major new commitment of U.S. forces, given increasing violence against U.S. forces based in Iraq, and major U.S. deployments there, in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and South Korea. The United States already has about 8,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, about 150,000 in Iraq and 2,500 in Kosovo.
In South Africa's capital of Pretoria, about 1,000 demonstrators marched peacefully to the U.S. Embassy, protesting Bush's war in Iraq and trip to Africa. About two dozen police officers and a handful of embassy employees looked on as demonstrators burned several small American flags emblazoned with slogans against Bush.
"We stand together with millions of people throughout the world and say that the biggest weapon of mass destruction is George W. Bush," Salim Vally of the Anti-War Coalition said in a speech.
Bush is spending more time in South Africa than any other nation on his African trip. He toured a Ford automobile plant and attended a dinner for Mbeki at the home of U.S. Ambassador Cameron Hume.
But Bush was not scheduled to meet with former South African President Nelson Mandela, the popular leader and hero of the anti-apartheid struggle who had harshly criticized Bush for going to war without a U.N. mandate.