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Congress Presses Senior US Official on Commitment to Liberia - 2003-09-30

Members of Congress have pressed a senior U.S. official about the Bush administration's commitment to stabilizing Liberia. The exchanges came during a hearing in a House of Representatives committee on President Bush's request for $87 billion for U.S. military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage came to testify about the billions of dollars the administration says are needed for Iraq and Afghanistan. But he found himself dealing with some tough questions from lawmakers impatient with the administration's policy on Liberia.

Jesse Jackson Junior, a Democrat from Illinois, reminded Mr. Armitage that the United States cannot simply rest on what little has been accomplished so far in Liberia. "We provided support for the cease-fire, and the peace process, and now have a transitional government in place. Our assistance now is needed in order to consolidate the peace, help the transitional government, establish the basis of a sound, legitimate and transparent government, and prepare for elections," he said.

Mr. Armitage said the administration continues to watch events in Liberia closely, but said U.S. assistance should be gradually [increased] as the humanitarian and security situation hopefully improves under Liberia's transitional leader, Gyude Bryant. "He is taking over a government which consists of nothing. There is nobody, there is nothing, it's been looted, it's all gone, zero, including capacity. So, in the short to medium term, we're going to be spending a lot time continuing to stabilize the humanitarian and the health and malaria, etc situation. The humanitarian situation has been stemmed because of the port opening and the ships coming in and the World Food Program. And we'll have to move gently but steadily into rule of law and governance and some conflict resolution as well," he said.

In reponse to a question, Mr. Armitage added that the administration continues to be concerned about Liberia, and other places like it, becoming "breeding grounds for terrorists."

Lawmakers also pressed Mr. Armitage on what some believe is inadequate administration attention to Sudan. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, asked "Should the Congress not have some money in this supplemental to deal with [the Sudan] issue? This war has been going on for 20 years, 2.1 million people killed, slavery, Osama bin-Laden lived in Sudan from 1991 to 1996. I am afraid if we don't have something to help out here, and you are using that allocation for Liberia, for this and for that, shouldn't there not be something in there for Sudan?"

Both Mr. Armitage, and Jim Kolbe, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee, said some "contingency money" in the Iraq-Afghanistan request could be diverted to Liberia as well as Sudan.

The administration says there will be money in the 2005 fiscal year budget for Liberia. But some lawmakers want added to the Iraq-Afghanistan bill.

Liberia will be the subject of a congressional hearing later this week, when the Africa subcommittee of the House International Relations hears from the top U.S. official for Africa, Walter Kansteiner, along with an official overseeing war crimes prosecutions in neighboring Sierra Leone.