In Liberia, U.S. forces are heroes in hiding

Friday, August 22, 2003

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Children turned joyful cartwheels when a team of U.S. Navy SEALs stormed Liberian beaches -- even though the Americans rushed back to sea just as quickly, apparently after surveying landing sites.

At the main airport, U.S. Marines provide valuable training and backup for a steadily growing West African peace force -- but behind high walls, out of sight.

Unlike in Iraq, where U.S. forces are viewed with suspicion and have come under almost daily guerrilla attacks, elated Liberians welcome American troops as hulking saviors in camouflage.

They just wish the Americans would mix more.

"We don't know why they haven't come out," said Augustine Quimolue, sitting beneath a tree outside the airport. A 150-member U.S. rapid-reaction team has been based in a closed compound there since Aug. 15, ready as a backup for a still-growing West African-led peacekeeping force.

"If they come in the streets, we expect them to put peace in the country. It would be a big help," the 42-year-old unemployed construction worker said.

His comments evoke the ecstatic welcome that West African peacekeeping troops received here. The one for Americans would surely dwarf it, if they ever moved out in numbers.

"They're on land and on the sea, and they won't leave until it's all fine," Emmanuel Diehyee, a refugee, said confidently. He expressed hope the Marines would spread out into the countryside -- and regret that they hadn't come before thousands of Monrovia's civilians died in months of war.

Founded with U.S. government backing by freed American slaves in the 19th century, Liberia today still sees America as its big brother.

Caricatures of Uncle Sam abound -- not ravenous, demonic faces like those burned in effigy elsewhere, but smiling, benevolent ones.

Those U.S. forces who roam out in the city -- mostly rotating members of a small liaison team no larger in number than 12 -- get waves.

"Hi, Marine! Hi, Marine!" crowds shout out thankfully.

"It's a lot more welcome feeling than Iraq or Afghanistan -- they seem to think we are here to help them more than in those places," said one Marine, who refused to give his name, as passers-by threw salutes at the Americans.

Curious clusters of Liberians surround their every move.

"I feel impressed when I see them. They're cute," said Merey Tutu, 23.

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