U.S. may get tougher on Colombia guerrillas


WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, alarmed by signs of weapons trafficking between Colombian rebels and the Middle East, is weighing a proposal to declare the destruction of leftist guerrillas in the South American country an explicit U.S. policy goal.

Some senior officials are also pushing for the administration to assert, for the first time, that the Colombian rebels are a target of the worldwide U.S. war on terrorism, administration officials said.

Such declarations would mark a significant toughening of U.S. policy and pose an important test of how much leeway Congress will grant President Bush to expand military operations around the world in the post-Sept. 11 era.

For six years, Congress has strictly limited the U.S. military mission in Colombia, fearing that if the anti-drug campaign escalated to a broader fight against insurgents, the United States could sink into a costly quagmire with echoes of Vietnam.

Under federal law and presidential directive, U.S. military assistance in the country's 38-year-old conflict has been generally limited to support for the Colombian government's counter-narcotics activities. The 250 U.S. troops there are barred from combat.

Yet as rebels have stepped up attacks in recent months, administration officials have come to the view that only sharply increased military pressure with U.S. backing can force the large and well-financed rebel forces to the negotiating table. Last week, Colombian President Andres Pastrana broke off talks with the guerrillas, and the Colombian army moved Friday to take over a zone ceded to the rebels three years ago.

The administration officials argue that the United States should seek to foster Colombian democracy and that the collapse of the Colombian government would risk violence and turmoil throughout a strategic, oil-producing corner of the hemisphere.

Seeking to underscore the security threats posed by the rebels, officials pointed last week to classified reports indicating that crudely manufactured mortars used in Libya have been found in the hands of Colombian rebels.

The rebels are among the largest and best-funded insurgent groups in the world. They earn hundreds of millions of dollars from drug trafficking as well as kidnapping and extortion operations.

Michael Shifter, an expert on Colombia at the Inter-American Dialogue research organization in Washington, said it would be a "radical departure" for the administration to commit itself to destroying the rebel organization, or even to make it an official target of the war on terrorism.

Declaring the rebels part of the broader terrorism war would probably bring still more money and resources to the battle and give the problem more high-level attention in Washington. It would reflect the administration's view that the insurgents are a threat beyond Colombia's borders and could spread instability to neighboring Venezuela, a significant oil producer, and Bolivia, Ecuador and Panama.

Paul Richter is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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