Clinton faces Somalia storm: Congress remembers Vietnam and threatens today's mission with an inglorious end

AS UNITED STATES troop reinforcements, equipped with tanks, C-130 Hercules gunships and other heavy armour left a Georgia military base on the way to Somalia, Bill Clinton yesterday cut short his stay in California to confront what has suddenly become the nastiest and most emotionally charged foreign policy crisis of his presidency.

Before he left Los Angeles, Mr Clinton warned of stern US retaliation if any harm was done to American servicemen taken prisoner by Somali gunmen, declaring it 'was no time to end' the 10-month US involvement in Somalia. But as he prepared for meetings with his top security advisers here, a swell of Congressional opposition threatened to bring the mission to an early and inglorious end.

From the Somali capital, Mogadishu, came no promise of respite. Sunday's 10-hour firefight - which had one Pentagon official likening Mogadishu 1993 to 1968 in Hue, Vietnam - left 12 US soldiers dead and 78 wounded. According to a Somali journalist, eight more US soldiers are being held hostage close to the person of General Mohamed Farrah Aideed in order to prevent reprisals.

And in a rare radio broadcast on Monday night, General Aideed, the powerful Somali factional leader sought by United Nations forces, urged his followers to 'do everything in their power to defend themselves' after a battle in which, he claimed, 300 Somalis were killed and 500 wounded.

The crisis is fast turning into a miniaturised replay of past media-driven foreign policy nightmares in Vietnam and Iran, with grisly video footage of dead and captive American servicemen heightening the anguish of the debate whether to commit more troops to the conflict and risk inextricable entanglement - or cut the losses and pull out now.

For the moment, with the dispatch of 220 troops, four A1-M1 tanks and two helicopter gunships from Fort Stewart in Georgia to join the 4,700 men already in Somalia, Mr Clinton has chosen the first course.

'This is a time for us to be very steady in our purpose,' said Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State. 'This is no time for the United States to start talking about departure.'

But it is precisely official muddle over that 'purpose' which is fuelling demands on Capitol Hill for withdrawal. In recent days, President Clinton has stressed the need for an 'exit strategy', and to find a political solution to Somalia's civil war. But the latest fighting, and the strengthened US military presence seem to make a mockery of such claims.

And if official policy is confused, public opinion is even more so as it witnesses the transformation of what began in the last weeks of George Bush's presidency as an idealistic humanitarian mission into a dirty street war in which American soldiers, serving under the aegis of the UN, seem to be mere targets in a shooting gallery.

Heightening the feeling of impotence have been two video clips played and replayed by television stations here. One featured the pilot of one of the three US Blackhawk helicopters downed in Sunday's fighting, his face bloodied and cut. 'I'm a soldier, I have to do what I'm told,' Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant told his captors, '. . . killing innocent people is not good.'

Another showed a corpse, apparently of an American soldier, dragged through the streets by a mob.

With few exceptions, Democrats and Republicans alike have taken the Senate floor to demand a speedy pull-out. The administration is due to make a report by 15 October on its Somalia strategy, with the possibility of a funding cut-off on 15 November. But that date could be advanced.

'Let's vote and get out,' urged Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia. Congressional switchboards have been deluged with calls from the public, 95 per cent of them demanding withdrawal.

The immediate purpose of the US firepower on its way to Somalia is to regain the UN's lost control of Mogadishu's streets. But the escalation threatens the very basis of US collaboration with the international body.

The administration 'has allowed the UN to rewrite the mission' into 'an open-ended military commitment', President Bush's defense secretary, Dick Cheney, declared. 'We shouldn't be in the position of having Boutros-Ghali and the United Nations deciding the objective of US military forces.'

(Photograph omitted)