Keeping the Peace: The ghost of invasions past

TO SOME Americans President Bush is Ebenezer Scrooge; to others he is Santa with a gun. This, after all, will be the third holiday season that he has asked US servicemen and women to sacrifice.

Three years ago it was Panama, to overthrow a dictator. Two years ago it was the Gulf, to liberate Kuwait. This year it will be the Horn of Africa, to help to get food to masses of starving Somalis.

Each time Mr Bush went to the American people to plead his case, he promised to have the troops home as soon as possible; this time in six weeks. But according to senior US officers, most of the 28,000-strong force will be there until March or beyond.

In California, Tiffany Cooper fought back the tears as she listened to Mr Bush promise to keep Marines, such as her husband, in Somalia no longer than necessary. 'It sounds a lot like the Gulf war speech,' said Mrs Cooper, whose husband, Corporal Derek Cooper, served in the Gulf. 'I know that 90 days can easily turn into six months, which can turn into nine months,' she said.

With this in mind, thousands of soldiers across America hurried to update wills and life insurance policies, and, in some cases, to get married, before heading to Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope. The first troops, 1,800 Marines, are already off the Somali coast awaiting orders, that are expected by tomorrow.

'I am feeling more and more comfortable that there will be adequate forces available to pick up this peace-keeping mission, and we can see our way clear of this operation in a few months,' said General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. US troops, working with contingents from other countries, would be the 'peace-makers', he added, and UN forces would then become the 'peace-keepers.'

Belgium has promised 550 paratroopers. France was sending 2,000 soldiers and Canada 900. Britain offered four transport planes. A 1,500-strong Italian force should arrive before Christmas. Egypt said it was preparing up to 600 soldiers to go to Somalia, and Nigeria and Turkey were also considering deployments. Even Germany's Defence Minister, Volker Ruhe, wants German troops to participate, despite a constitutional ban on Germany operating outside the continent.

General Powell said that after the bulk of the US force had returned home, a group of Marines would remain off Somalia's shores in case the UN force needed protection. Some US troops could start leaving Somalia in January, he said, but he would not name a specific date.

That offered little consolation to Paula Walklett, facing her first Christmas apart from her husband, a Marine lance corporal. 'It makes me sad to see him go, but he believes in it and so do I. We don't want to see people starving.'

(Map omitted)

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