The United Nations Security Council is planning to give the US complete discretion over the Somalia operation. A draft resolution being considered by the Council will allow the US and other countries to use 'all necessary means' to establish a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia. The same formula was used before the Gulf war to authorise the US-led action against Iraq.
The resolution, which could be approved as early as today, calls on countries 'which are in a position to do so' to provide military forces and contributions in cash and equipment for the operation. The dispatched force would operate under UN auspices but under US command. The resolution also makes clear that the existing UN operation in Somalia will be kept distinct from the US-led campaign. Five hundred UN troops have been confined to the vicinity of Mogadishu airport for almost three months.
The Pentagon sources said plans for use of US troops could be submitted to President Bush for approval within hours. 'Until we get word from the UN, our plans are nothing more than drafts,' the sources said. 'But if it comes, then we should be able to move very quickly.'
A tentative strategy paper, likely to be revised in the light of the UN instruction, has been drawn up by the commander of the US Unified Command, General Joseph Hoar, at the McDill base in Florida. If, as expected, the US contribution to the force numbers between 12,000 and 20,000 soldiers, the Somali mission will become the largest military relief effort in history. For the US, it is likely also to represent a mobilisation bigger than the invasions of Grenada or, more recently, Panama.
The Pentagon sources confirmed that the operation would be spearheaded by 1,800 US assault-force Marines, due to arrive in waters off the Somali coast before the weekend on board three Navy ships, led by the USS Tripoli. The ships were on exercises in the Indian Ocean until being diverted late last week.
On receiving final approval from Mr Bush, the US military would order the Marines onshore immediately to begin work preparing for the arrival of the remainder of the international force. 'Their job would be to establish secure military conditions to start offloading airborne and seaborne supplies, equipment and personnel,' the sources confirmed.
The Marines already have with them 23 helicopters and four Cobra attack craft.
Ten C-130 heavy-lift aircraft are stationed in Mombasa, Kenya, and are already being used to airlift humanitarian supplies into Somalia.
Pentagon officials confirm that the bulk of the additional US contingent would be airlifted to the region from the US mainland. Though it would be a large operation - bigger in numbers almost certainly than the US used to provide to annual Cold War manoeuvres in Europe - it would not approach the scale of the Desert Shield mobilisation, which moved 500,000 US soldiers.
There are growing murmurs of concern in Washington about the dangers of a long-term entanglement. Senator Paul Simon of Illinois predicted US troops would come home after four months.
But the representative, John Murtha, of the military appropriations committee, demanded that Mr Bush consult Congress before deployment: 'It's going to take tremendous resources. I don't think we will be able to extricate ourselves.'