President Bush said today that he is sending combat troops to Panama and evacuating dependents to protect Americans in the turmoil arising from a presidential election that the White House condemned as "electoral theft" by Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Bush, facing the first foreign policy crisis of his presidency, said about 2,000 troops will be sent "to protect the lives of American citizens." About 21,300 American civilians, many of them retired, live in Panama.
Bush also recalled the U.S. ambassador, Arthur Davis, and said companies doing business in Panama will be asked to bring home dependents.
"We will not be intimidated by the bullying tactics of the dictator, Noriega, brutal though they may be," Bush declared.
Bush acted after consulting with congressional leaders, who gave him their backing, and with leaders of other Latin American countries. He promised to use "regional diplomacy" to try to remove Noriega.
"The Noriega regime first tried to steal this election through massive fraud and intimidation and now has nullified this election and resorted to violence and bloodshed," Bush said.
He said Americans in Panama will be asked to leave the country or move within U.S. compounds there. The United States maintains 10 military facilities there.
Bush said he would not rule out "other steps" if needed.
Bush also called on the armed forces of Panama--Noriega's power base--to stand up for democracy.
"The United States stands with the Panamanian people. We share their hope that the Panamanian defense forces will stand with them and fulfill their constitutional obligation to defend democracy," he said. "The professional Panamanian Defense Force can have an important role to play in Panama's democratic future."
Administration sources said the Pentagon was preparing to send the troops from Ft. Ord, Calif., and Ft. Polk, La. The sources said one group of about 1,000 would be dispatched immediately from the 7th Light Infantry Division at Ft. Ord. The other, a mechanized infantry division from Ft. Polk, will be transported by ship and will not arrive in Panama for several days, the sources said.
The sources said 5th Infantry Division units from Ft. Polk will probably be dispatched with armored personnel carriers and only a small number of tanks. One official said a mechanized force would be sent as a precaution in case the situation deteriorates and additional protection is needed to help dependents evacuate.
The sources also disclosed that a "very small" unit from the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, N.C., might be dispatched via ship transport, but declined to elaborate.
And the officials said Bush had the option of ordering an aircraft carrier battle group to the region. By coincidence, the carrier America and six escorts departed Norfolk, Va., and two other ports today, bound for a routine deployment in the Mediterranean Sea.
"The group was told to stay loose, they might have to hang a right turn," one official said.
Bush met with his national security advisers and called in congressional leaders to outline his plans.