President Bush, responding to a rash of political violence in Panama and harassment of U.S. servicemen there, has tentatively decided to boost the U.S. military presence by sending as many as 3,000 additional troops to the troubled nation, Administration officials said Wednesday night.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, stressed that no final decisions had been made and that the President will review the deployment, as well as other options, with congressional leaders who have been summoned to meet with him at the White House this morning. The sources commented before Panamanian government officials announced late Wednesday that the results of Sunday's election would be nullified because of fraud by the opposition and U.S. interference. The White House had no immediate statement on the Panamanian announcement.
According to the sources, President Bush's decision was based on half a dozen incidents involving U.S. service personnel and was intended to insure the protection of U.S. citizens in Panama. Among the incidents were the arrests of two U.S. defense attaches--later released--and three reservists on Wednesday and, a night earlier, the beating of a Navy enlisted man by suspected pro-Noriega forces.
The decision in Washington was made at the end of a day that saw the unrest in Panama escalating in the wake of what has been almost universally condemned as a fraudulent election and the refusal of the regime of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega to recognize the victory of opposition presidential candidate Guillermo Endara.
Earlier Wednesday, the Pentagon ordered all U.S. military personnel in Panama to remain on base or in their homes because of growing violence in the streets of Panama City and harassment of U.S. servicemen.
Acting within minutes after Panamanian paramilitary forces physically attacked Endara during an anti-government demonstration, the Pentagon increased its alert status for the 10,000 U.S. troops plus an equal number of dependents in Panama.
The attack on Endara during the afternoon in Panama City also led to a late afternoon meeting between Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and a telephone conversation between Bush and U.S. Ambassador Arthur Davis in Panama.
At the White House meeting, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly argued strongly that in the absence of further provocations of U.S. military personnel or their dependents, there should be no increase in the size of the U.S. force in Panama.
'Uncalled For, Unneeded'
"It's uncalled for, unneeded at this point, just additional ammunition for Noriega to use to his advantage," said a senior military official. The official added that the 10,000 "very capable" U.S. troops already in Panama are sufficient to cope with the current threat to them.
But Crowe, expressing the opinions of the nation's senior military officers, appeared to back a response, in which an escalation in harassment of U.S. forces or their dependents could result in the introduction of additional security troops.
But on the basis of Davis' report, Administration officials said, the President decided tentatively to take the steps that could lead to the deployment of a brigade of 2,000 to 3,000 troops.
Should the troops be called up, they would be culled from a number of divisions, government sources said.
Pentagon spokesman Dan Howard, however, stressed Wednesday night that no U.S. troops outside Panama had been called up or put on alert. In March and April, 1988, responding to what it called "the potential for increased threats to U.S. citizens and interests in Panama," the Reagan Administration dispatched about 1,800 fresh troops to Panama. The troops consisted mostly of police forces and a helicopter task force that could move U.S. troops quickly in case of an attack on the Panama Canal or on U.S. forces.
Included in the force was a 300-man rifle company from Ft. Ord, Calif.
Before reaching his tentative decision to boost the U.S. military presence in Panama, Bush called the attack on Endara one of a series of "blatant attempts at intimidation" by the Noriega regime.
Bush tried to reach Endara by telephone late Wednesday afternoon but could not get through, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said. Bush asked Ambassador Davis to contact Endara "to commend him for his strength in standing up to the Noriega forces."
Bush once again accused Noriega of conducting a "fraudulent election" that seems designed to deny democratically won power to the general's opponents.
"He has now escalated this to include violence against opposition leaders including Mr. Endara," Bush said. "This action underscores that Gen. Noriega does not have the interests of the Panamanian people at heart."
The attack increased the urgency with which U.S. senior policy-makers were weighing steps to react to Sunday's election in Panama. Officials have said that the Administration was considering a number of actions, from economic sanctions to military force, to back up demands that Noriega step down.
Bush has contacted several Latin American leaders seeking their support for sanctions against Noriega, the White House said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher kept up the Administration's public criticism of the Panamanian regime: "Having failed to rig the election in advance, Noriega is now doing everything he can to steal it after the fact despite the clear message from the people of Panama." But Boucher refused to discuss action that the United States might take.
American military personnel in Panama were advised Wednesday afternoon to stay out of all public areas except for essential business and to remain on U.S. military facilities until further notice. The warning--code-named "Personnel Movement Limitation Charlie"--is the second-highest alert status for U.S. military personnel overseas.
A Pentagon spokesman said that U.S. troops and civilian Defense Department employees in Panama were "sticking pretty close to home," especially after learning that Panamanian riot forces were using acid in water cannons trained on demonstrators.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang, Melissa Healy and Don Shannon contributed to this story.