WASHINGTON -- Launching a new phase in U.S. militar intervention, President Bush formally dispatched more than 28,000 U.S. troops yesterday on a humanitarian mission to relieve massive starvation in Somalia.
In his first public statement on the subject, Mr. Bush stressed the "limited objective" of the U.S.-led task force, code-named Operation Restore Hope.
He said combat troops would land in the beleaguered African nation early next week and that security operations would be turned over to United Nations peacekeepers once order is restored, insisting there is no plan to interfere in Somalia's internal politics.
"The people of Somalia, especially the children of Somalia, need our help," Mr. Bush said in a brief, stern TV speech. "We're able to ease their suffering. We must help them live. We must give them hope. America must act."
He added, "Only the United States can put a large combat force on the ground quickly and, thus, save thousands of innocents from death."
The U.N.-sponsored multinational task force has been ordered to stop warring gangs from interfering with deliveries of food and other relief supplies in the famine-- and disease-ravaged land, where more than 300,000 have already died. If no action is taken, warned Mr. Bush, another 1.5 million Somalis could starve to death in the months to come.
"Difficult and dangerous," is how the president described the military mission to a chaotic country where "anarchy prevails."
There has been no civilian government in Somalia since January, 1991 and armed fighters loyal to various local warlords have frustrated efforts of U.N. peacekeepers to protect international relief efforts. Mr. Bush said the "outlaw elements" in Somalia "must understand this is serious business."
But Pentagon officials sought to downplay the risk of major casualties. They said U.S. troops have orders to take "whatever steps they feel are necessary," including pre-emptive action, to protect themselves against Somali irregulars, who are poorly organized and relatively lightly armed.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said the cost to U.S. taxpayers of the operation would be about "a few hundred million dollars."
President Bush said that "about a dozen" other countries would join the Somali task force.
The administration is also seeking international contributions, as did in the Persian Gulf war, to defray expenses, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said following a White House briefing yesterday morning.
Democrat Foley and other congressional leaders of both parties strongly endorsed Mr. Bush's action. Mr. Foley said that there were no immediate plans for congressional hearings and that the War Powers Act requiring congressional approval had not been triggered because there is "no immediate likelihood of hostilities."
President-elect Bill Clinton, who very likely will be sworn into office before the troops have been withdrawn, issued a carefully worded statement of support.
Mr. Bush never mentioned Mr. Clinton in his nationally televised address, nor did he consult with him immediately prior to issuing the order yesterday.
A Clinton spokesman said the two men had not spoken in several days, although the Arkansas governor is being briefed daily on the situation by the Bush administration.
Mr. Bush's decision to deploy troops drew only scattered opposition from both Democrats and Republicans.
Among the dissenters was Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley of Baltimore County, who expressed concern, through an aide, about sending U.S. soldiers into the midst of a civil war where the combatants include civilians and children.
In an eight-minute noontime TV address that marked his return to the public spotlight a month after his re-election defeat, Mr. Bush answered critics by stating that the operation "is not open-ended."
He also sought to discourage the notion that the United States was trying to play world policeman, but that some world crises cannot be resolved without U.S. involvement, which he term a "catalyst" for international action.
U.S. forces, he added, were going ashore in Somalia "for one reason only, to enable the starving to be fed."
The president cited the request by relief officials for outside military assistance to protect those seeking to feed starving Somalis. But Mr. Bush also seemed to suggest, as did other top officials, that the wrenching TV news footage of starving children in Somalia was another major factor behind his decision to take military action.
"Every American has seen the shocking images from Somalia," he said. "When we see Somalia's children starving, all of America hurts."
Mr. Bush promised that U.S. troops "would not stay one day longer than is absolutely necessary," but he gave no date for their withdrawal. And with less than seven weeks left in his presidency, it is unlikely that Mr. Bush will be the one who orders the American forces to leave.
White House officials had hoped that U.S. soldiers would be out by Jan. 20, the date his term expires. But Mr. Cheney called that "an artificial deadline" yesterday and said the administration now hopes only that the withdrawal will have begun by then.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was his guess that it would take until February or March before most U.S. forces are out.
Using the imagery of the Wild West to describe the U.S.-led coalition, which is under the command of the same military unit as the Persian Gulf war, General Powell said: "It's sort of like the cavalry coming to the rescue, straightening things out for a while, and then letting the marshals come back in to keep things under control."
Once most U.S. troops have been withdrawn, he added, U.S. Marines may remain offshore "so that the [U.N.] peacekeeping efforts know that there's a posse out there if they need one." The U.S. Air Force is also expected to continue operating relief flights into Somalia, as it has been doing since August.
Mr. Bush issued his order just nine days after first offering U.S. military protection to the Somali relief effort, and with virtually no public debate. It followed by less than a day the decision by the U.N. Security Council to intervene forcefully in a country's internal affairs.
Opposition to Mr. Bush's action has been muted, although one )) senator who met with him yesterday, conservative Republican Hank Brown of Colorado, said afterward that he is "deeply concerned" because the U.S. commitment "is not tightly defined" in terms of time, the number of troops and the areas of Somalia where U.S. soldiers will attempt to impose order.
He added that he thought it was "a mistake" not to have Muslim troops "take the lead" in assisting a country that is virtually 100 percent Muslim and that it was "a mistake to have U.S. troops involved."
But another critic, Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, who chairs the influential House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, softened his opposition.
"I now have fewer reservations about the goals of the mission," he said in a statement, adding, however, that he is still "very concerned" about the precedent being set, which he called "a fundamental change in foreign policy."
Mr. Murtha questioned whether Mr. Bush might now decide to sent troops into Bosnia.
But Mr. Cheney said yesterday that Bosnia is "dramatically different."