US 'will not be drawn into long conflict': White House tries to reassure public that troops will be home soon

A TOP official in the Clinton administration yesterday sought to assure public opinion that US involvement in Somalia was not the beginning of a slippery slope that might lead to open-ended involvement in a foreign crisis. As he spoke, 2,000 marines were positioned off the coast of Somalia, ready to join the more than 4,000 US troops already serving with the United Nations there.

In a rare public interview, the White House Chief of Staff, Thomas 'Mack' Mclarty, declined to predict how long US servicemen would be required to stay in the country. But he argued that Washington had only two goals in Somalia: to 'restore peace and security' and ensure the free flow of humanitarian aid. When that was achieved, the Somalis themselves would be able to rebuild their country.

Mr McLarty's remarks, on NBC's Meet the Press programme, were a fresh response to complaints that what has been deliberately portrayed here as a UN effort was in fact a thinly disguised American-run operation, and to worries that demonstrators in Mogadishu were channelling their ire less at the UN than at the US.

That 'distortion' was separately rejected by Jonathan Howe, the American admiral who is the UN special representative for Somalia. The intervention, and last week's assault on the headquarters of the warlord General Mohamed Aideed, had been 'truly a UN operation'. Casualties had been among other contingents in the peace- keeping force. Only one American soldier had incurred 'superficial' wounds.

The use of heavy force, he predicted, would provide a 'short-cut' to a resolution of the Somali crisis. Gen Aideed was still at large yesterday, but Admiral Howe hinted that UN forces had a shrewd idea of his whereabouts. He appealed for the warlord to give himself up, promising that he would receive a 'very fair and impartial' trial.

Despite the spectacular role played by American air power, the Somalia operation has attracted relatively little comment here, as political debate has focused on Mr Clinton's difficulties at home. But yesterday, in some of the sharpest public comment so far, a New York Times editorial voiced the fear that the UN and the US could be drawn into a quagmire.

What began last December as an open-hearted humanitarian mission had turned into 'a bloody urban brawl' in Mogadishu. The punitive action against Gen Aideed was justified, the paper wrote.

But it raised the spectre of the 241 Marines killed in their Beirut barracks while participating in an earlier multinational 'peace-keeping' operation, in Lebanon in 1983. Today's operation 'stands at a dangerous point, the US and the UN could slide unthinkingly into deep involvement in Somalia's internal chaos'.

The official line, offered by Admiral Howe yesterday, is that the mere presence of the marines, with their 'tremendous capability from the air and on the ground', will remove this risk.

He predicted that the Somalia tangle could be sorted out quickly. But an increasing number of Americans are not so sure.

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