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Liberian President to Address US Congress

Wednesday the Liberian president will address what is called a joint meeting of Congress, an honor given to foreign leaders, the most recent being Italy's prime minister.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is expected to receive a warm reception from lawmakers gathered in the House of Representatives chamber.

But her address takes place amid an undercurrent of unease among supporters in Congress of Liberia's political and economic recovery efforts.

Just last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved $50 million in economic and humanitarian aid as part of a multibillion dollar supplemental bill funding U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. says while the United States has helped Liberia in its peaceful transition from former President Charles Taylor, to President Sirleaf, more needs to be done:

"Over the last 2.5 years we have provided resources to Liberia culminating in the successful, transparent and peaceful election of the first female head of state on the African continent and now more than ever we need to ensure that this investment is not squandered," he said.

In the regular 2006 U.S. fiscal year budget, $128 million was designated for Liberia, a point driven home by Congressman Jim Kolbe who heads the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee.

However, the funding has been held up and Kolbe says congressional appropriators have been waiting for U.S. government agencies to come back with specific plans on how the money will be spent in Liberia, which he agrees is at a crucial point.

"It is fragile, it is extraordinarily fragile," he said. "We have made a tiny baby step forward with the election of the new president there. And we should do everything we can to assist that process."

Lawmakers will be pressing for more money for Liberia as part of the 2007 budget process which will be unfolding in coming months.

South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn is among House lawmakers concerned about the fragility of the situation in Liberia, and of President Sirleaf's administration.

He says the Liberian leader needs to be able to return home with some tangible results in the form of aid commitments:

"I believe it is important for us to show some support for this great woman, who was educated in this country, and who I believe will be an outstanding symbol for freedom and justice," said Clyburn. "We need to support her."

"The first female in Africa, in the history of the [Liberian] nation," said Congresswoman Carolyn Kilpatrick. "The continent of Africa is two-and-a-half times the size of the U.S. [and] not without its problems. But [this will be] an opportunity to build real communities and countries with resources that can partner with the United States of America."

President Sirleaf's visit to Washington follows the visit to Liberia in January of a U.S. delegation led by Laura Bush, and including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to attend the Liberian leader's inauguration.

Congresswoman Nita Lowey says she expects the Liberian president to give President Bush, whom she meets next week, and other government officials specifics about plans for reconstruction in the wake of Liberia's long and bloody civil conflict:

"It is my understanding that President Sirleaf does have a plan, in addition to the $128 million," she said. "There are infrastructure projects. It is critical that we respond positively, in my judgment, to her request."

"Liberia is at a crucial turning point," said Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. "The next few months will be critical in determining whether peace and democracy prevail, or whether political instability, the threat of violence, rampant corruption, and criminality burgeon anew."

Among pledges she has made since taking office in Liberia, President Sirleaf says she wants to bring back electricity to the capital, Monrovia, by this July's 159th anniversary of Liberia's independence.

U.S. lawmakers say this and other reconstruction hopes may be dashed without a commitment of substantial new U.S. aid.

Members of Congress, meanwhile, are also concerned about threats posed by former president Charles Taylor who remains in exile in Nigeria.

There have been conflicting reports this week about whether Liberia has submitted a request to Nigeria to extradite Taylor to face war crimes charges before the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.