FACING pressure from Congress and international relief organizations, the Bush administration may be shedding its reluctance to have United Nations forces deployed in the war-torn African nation of Somalia.
The United States backed a recent Security Council resolution favoring the dispatch of 500 soldiers to protect food shipments to Somalia, but it has said deployment should be delayed until there was a break in the country's bloody, 18-month civil war.
Sending UN forces would be "premature until there was an effective cease-fire," Assistant Secretary of State John Bolton, the highest-ranking US official to visit Somalia since the civil war began, told a congressional panel two weeks ago. This week he sounded a different note, saying UN forces should be dispatched, even if the fighting continues.
James Kunder, director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) told reporters at the State Department: "I would endorse the deployment of the troops - with or without" the permission of the warring factions.
A congressional source says, "There has been a disconnect between State and AID" [the Agency for International Development, OFDA's parent organization] on the issue of UN forces. "State may now be gravitating in AID's direction."
A White House statement issued last week urged the UN "to move as quickly as possible" to deploy security guards to protect food shipments. Relief organizations say the deployment of the UN troops is essential to get food supplies to Somalia's starving people. More than 150,000 tons of food are ready for distribution, according to AID.
As many as 100,000 Somalian soldiers and civilians have died since the start of the war, according to various estimates. The war and a two-year drought have combined to put 1.5 million more Somalis on the edge of starvation. It is "the world's worst humanitarian crisis," Mr. Kunder said.
The Senate passed a resolution Monday calling for the dispatch of UN guards "with or without the consent of the Somali factions." The House is expected to vote on a similar resolution next week.
Civil war erupted in Somalia in January 1991, after forces that overthrew longtime President Mohammed Siad Barre fell into factional fighting.
THE conflict has devolved into a confusing pattern of tribal and clan warfare, disrupting agriculture and displacing a quarter of the country's estimated six million inhabitants. Some 800,000 more have streamed across the border into Kenya and Ethiopia and across the Red Sea into Yemen, according to AID.
In April the UN Security Council approved a massive airlift of food and medicines to Somalia and deployment of guards to protect food convoys to towns where Somalis are starving.
Convinced they would legitimize his main rival, Somali warlord Gen. Farrah Aidid said he would not allow UN in areas controlled by his own forces. Mr. Bolton said an aide to General Aidid warned: "If the UN sent in 50 military observers, they might as well send in 50 coffins, too."
A team of UN technicians is due to arrive in Somalia this week to assess conditions for deploying UN soldiers.
The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the main relief organization working in Somalia, says that of 35,000 tons of food needed per month only 15,000 are now getting through, enough to feed half a million Somalis at 450 feeding centers in the country.
UN troops could unclog the supply lines, especially ports, and ensure that food supplies would be fairly distributed. To reduce the tensions that feed the civil war, relief officials say, the international community must pour massive amounts of food into Somalia, with or without immediate regard to efficiency or equity.
"We have to accept the fact that food will first reach people with guns, then the people who really need it," says Mark Gastellu-Etchegorry, deputy director of the Paris-based group Doctors Without Frontiers. "Monitoring food shipments will be possible only in the second phase."
Since the start of the civil war, local agriculture has all but ceased to exist, factories that produced food have been destroyed, and food-distribution systems have been disrupted.
More than a fourth of all children under age five have died. Without major food supplies, the figure could jump to three-fourths within six months, according to estimates used by US AID and the private relief groups.
"The international community is looking at a country that is now dying," says Dr. Gastellu-Etchegorry. "A whole generation is going to disappear in Somalia."
The US has provided $77 million in food and non-food humanitarian assistance to Somalia, more than any other nation.
MOST of it has been channeled through the ICRC and other private organizations. "This shows a decided pattern of strong American support" for the relief effort, says a State Department official.
Critics rejoin that distribution, not money, is the main issue, and that the only way to get food where it is needed is with a UN military presence. They have echoed UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's complaint that the UN Security Council has been more concerned with helping Yugoslavia than Somalia.
"It's very difficult for the administration to wean itself from the idea that our primary focus must be on those nations above the equator and that nations below the equator deserve second best," says a congressional source. In terms of the percentage of the population affected and rates of mortality and severe malnutrition, the crisis in Somalia may be as bad as or worse than the famine that killed 1 million in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, relief officials say.