The Pentagon may soon move a three-ship, 2,300 Marine amphibious assault group into the Mediterranean where it could move quickly to Liberia if President Bush decides to order a U.S. peacekeeping unit into the strife-torn country.
Pentagon officials say Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is weighing whether to order the three-ship Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group from its present location in the Horn of Africa into the Mediterranean.
The officials stress that no decision has yet been made. But they characterize the move as a precautionary one that would enable the group's 2,300 Special Operations capable Marines to reach Liberia in a matter of days if a presidential decision is made to send U.S. peacekeepers to West Africa.
A small U.S. military assessment team is already in Liberia to evaluate security conditions. A second team is in Ghana assessing the capabilities of a promised peace force from the West African regional grouping, ECOWAS.
While President Bush has said it may be necessary to send American troops to Liberia, he has also indicated any U.S. deployment will be limited in size and duration.
The so-called Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group came ashore in Djibouti for live-fire training exercises on July 10. Members of the group participated earlier this year in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Two years ago, the unit took part in operations in Afghanistan.
The three ships supporting the Marines include the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima. In addition to the Marines, more than 2,500 sailors are aboard the three vessels.
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's consideration of the group's move into the Mediterranean came as rebels in Liberia captured a strategic bridge outside the capital, Monrovia. The new fighting has raised fears of a collapse in the shaky ceasefire between the rebels and government troops.