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African-American Lawmakers Look Carefully at US  Involvement in Liberia - 2003-07-10

Members of Congress say they support a U.S. peacekeeping role in Liberia. However, African-American lawmakers told reporters they hope U.S. involvement will be limited and not place U.S. troops in harm's way anymore than necessary.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, African-American lawmakers in the House of Representatives, spoke to reporters just as Secretary of State Colin Powell was commenting on Liberia at a news conference in Pretoria.

Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the caucus, said U.S. involvement can have a great impact as long as it is well thought out.

"We do not want to see one soldier die unnecessarily, but the fact is that our troops, and we are talking about a relatively small number of our troops, can change the course of history for millions of people," he said.

Mr. Cummings wants President Bush to make a decision on deployment of U.S. troops to Liberia before the president leaves Nigeria on Saturday.

The congressman listed four principles: U.S. participation as part of a United Nations backed multi-national force, the immediate departure of Liberian President Charles Taylor, pacification of Monrovia through demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of factions, and humanitarian aid.

Donald Payne, the top Democrat on the House Africa subcommittee, said he hopes the president and Secretary of State Powell make the correct "moral decision" given the long relationship between the United States and Liberia.

"The United States played a role in the creation of the country," he emphasized. "We have been there since 1820. In 1847 it became an independent country using our constitution, the colors of our flag. The people are proud to be associated with America, and they will welcome us there."

But many lawmakers remain skeptical, saying U.S. forces should not be strained further than they are by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said Iraq and Liberia are different situations, and expresses disappointment in suggestions that a U.S. troop deployment to Liberia needs to have the approval of Congress.

"For anyone to say now that humanitarian aid and peacekeeping troops need to have a vote of Congress, I believe there is a question of whether or not we treat Africa differently because of its race of people as opposed to other areas," she said. "And I think the president, in the determination he makes, and Secretary Powell, need to look at this very, very carefully."

Members of the Black Caucus say the administration's decision will be nothing less than a test of President Bush's stated commitment to the continent, demonstrated by his $15 billion AIDS initiative, and his current trip.

They say that generally, money in the U.S. budget devoted to African causes is declining, and they hope Mr. Bush will be ready to consult more closely with them when he returns on matters of importance to Africa.