Clinton works to avert clash on Somalia withdrawal



WASHINGTON (AP)—President Clinton and leading senators signaled some willingness to compromise Wednesday in an effort to avert a showdown over congressional demands for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Soalia.

Clinton hinted he could be flexible on the date for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the East African nation if some conditions are met, and a leading Senate critic of the president’s policy, Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., eased his demand for withdrawal by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Senate leadership struggled to craft a winnable withdrawal measure.

Clinton reiterated his position that the United States would pull out its forces by March 31, but at the same time he indicated he was open to other dates.

‘‘We could leave earlier if, No. 1, I’m sure we can do it safely, and, No. 2, it’s clear to me that we’ve done everything that’s possible to give the Somalis what you might call survival rights,’‘ Clinton said in an interview with Univision, a Spanish-speaking network.

Byrd, the Appropriations Committee chairman, had threatened the administration with a measure cutting off all funds for U.S. forces by Dec. 31. But on Wednesday he offered a Feb. 1 deadline—with a provision that Congress could authorize additional time.

The White House also sought to appease angry lawmakers by furnishing—two days before it was due—a report defining the military mission as humanitarian and stating emphatically that it is not open-ended. Clinton said in the report that he is sending 3,000 additional Army combat troops to protect U.S. forces, an increase over the 1,700 he announced last week.

National security adviser Anthony Lake and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili briefed members of the Senate leadership on Somalia report.

‘‘We still may not succeed. A lot of people don’t think Somalia can be a nation, can’t live in peace, a lot of people don’t, but I think before we pull out, I think we should do everything we can so that we know we have tried, we have given those folks a chance to survive,’‘ Clinton told Univision.

The president was working with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., to counter any challenge to the announced March 31 deadline, said presidential spokeswoman, Dee Dee Myers.

Mitchell said a resolution being worked out by Senate leaders, ‘‘which will be generally supportive of the president’s position, should pass and will pass.’‘

A meeting of Senate Republicans failed to produce a consensus behind a Mitchell-Dole measure that is consistent with Clinton’s policy and maintains his deadline. The Senate suspended consideration of the defense spending bill as a handful of GOP senators, including Dole, continued to work on the resolution.

‘‘There’s a distinct sentiment, though not a majority of Republicans, to just do it now’‘ and withdraw forces, said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.

The Clinton administration has tried to fight off lawmakers’ demands for the immediate withdrawal of American troops following the raid on Somali forces loyal to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid that left 18 Americans dead.

The White House report, obtained by The Associated Press, said the purpose of the mission is ‘‘to assist in providing a secure environment to enable the free flow of humanitarian relief.’‘

The mission is being carried out by providing U.S. military logistics services to U.N. forces and by providing ‘‘U.S. combat units to act as an interim force protection supplement to U.N. forces in emergencies.’‘

‘‘Thus, the U.S. military mission is supportive of, but more limited than, the overall U.N. mission,’‘ the report said.

The report, which was largely detailed by Clinton in his speech last Thursday, also said the pressure and presence of U.S. forces will prevent renewed civil war and help create a climate for a peaceful settlement.

‘‘The United States has a humanitarian interest in preventing the return of the mass death caused by anarchy and famine,’‘ the report said.

In a statement accompanying it, Clinton said: ‘‘Ours was a gesture of a great nation, carried out by thousands of American citizens, both military and civilian. We did not then, nor do we now plan to stay in that country.’‘

The Senate is expected to vote on Byrd’s amendment on Thursday, and the senator said it would put lawmakers on record in approving the missions proposed by Clinton.

‘‘The president of the United States is our commander-in-chief and I do not believe we should attempt to micromanage in the Congress,’‘ Byrd said in a speech on the Senate floor.

But he added: ‘‘We have a heavy responsibility to our citizens when we authorize the dispatch of their sons and daughters to defend our nation and our nation’s interests in foreign lands.’‘

Further muddying the issue was the closed-door testimony of Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, the head of the Central Command who told senators in a briefing Tuesday that troops could be out of Somalia by the first of the year, according to a congressional source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hoar appeared again Wednesday before a closed meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee, with lawmakers seeking an explanation of his earlier testimony.

Former President Bush, who first sent the troops to Somalia last year, said Wednesday, ‘‘I think I might have tried to do some of the things differently than we’re seeing now.’‘

He said the original mission was to ‘‘open the supply lines, keep these warlords from keeping the food away from the people. … Then we knew how it would end because we would come out and we would turn over the peacekeeping, peacemaking to the United Nations.’‘

‘‘I just hope we don’t get that mission messed up now,’‘ he said.