WASHINGTON -- Irate Republican legislators denounced Defense Secretary Les Aspin yesterday for failing to send M1-A1 tanks and other reinforcements requested last month by the U.S. military commander in Somalia.
The tanks would have helped protect American forces in a firefight Sunday that killed 12 soldiers, wounded 78 and left as many as eight others missing or captured, the lawmakers charged.
Rep. James T. Walsh of New York took the House floor to declare that Mr. Aspin "should tender his resignation" if news reports of his decision are true.
"Those tanks would have saved that Ranger company on Sunday," Mr. Walsh said. Another New York Republican, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, said, "To have the secretary of defense denying military hardware to the commander in the field is unconscionable."
At the Pentagon, civilian and military officials exchanged recriminations over the handling of the request by Army Maj. Gen. Thomas M. Montgomery, a former commander of armor and mechanized infantry units who now serves as deputy commander of U.N. peacekeeping troops and the head of U.S. forces in Somalia.
The Sun and other news organizations reported yesterday that General Montgomery sent a request for M1-A1 tanks up the chain of command early last month.
But Mr. Aspin deferred action on the request because there seemed to be "no great sense of urgency" at the time, a senior Pentagon official said.
In addition, the official said, Mr. Aspin and others were concerned that sending armored reinforcements would stir political trouble on Capitol Hill, where pressure for a U.S. military withdrawal from the East African country already was mounting.
Both civilian and military officials now agree, however, that the lack of heavily armored tanks contributed to heavy U.S. losses in a pitched battle that ended early Monday between U.S. Army Rangers and forces loyal to Somali warlord Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid.
Neither the Rangers nor a rescue team of U.S. and foreign troops had armored reinforcements capable of smashing through encircling Somalian forces or barricaded streets.
As a result, it took nine hours to rescue the Rangers, who had been pinned down by heavy gunfire in a congested neighborhood in Mogadishu.
As many as 70 of the 90 Rangers were killed or wounded, military officials said.
The rescue team included four Pakistani M-48 tanks that were ill-suited for the mission, military officials said. A 5-ton truck carrying U.S. troops was attacked by rocket-propelled grenades, destroying the truck and wounding three Americans, officials said.
Several military officers said they didn't understand why Mr. Aspin failed to grant the request for M1-A1 tanks.
American and U.N. peacekeepers were being killed by mines and General Aidid's control of major arteries in the city was so well established that news accounts portrayed many of the foreign troops as virtual prisoners in their own compounds.
"The one rule they violated is that you always support your commander in the field. If the commander says he wants green toilet paper, you give him green toilet paper," an Army officer said yesterday.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, who retired last week as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supported the request for 58 M1-A1 tanks and up to 1,000 troops, two well-placed military officials said.
General Montgomery sent a request to the U.S. Central Command, where it was endorsed and passed on to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
General Powell wasted little time in advising Mr. Aspin to grant the request, military officials said.
Civilian officials said military leaders, including General Powell, were divided over the need to send armored reinforcements immediately.