As President Bush announced that he would spend the New Year's holiday with troops here, officials said Tuesday that the U.S.-led military effort in Somalia is three to four weeks ahead of schedule and within five days of completing its "peacemaking" phase.
Starting with a Christmas Eve thrust into the town of Hoddur, the schedule of future troop movements calls for U.S. Marines and French forces to occupy the remaining four of eight towns targeted for pacification by next Monday.
"This is nearly a month faster than we planned on," said a senior Marine officer, who explained that the expected opposition to the U.S.-led mission here "never really developed."
The President will receive reports on the progress of the operation when he arrives from Washington on Dec. 30, after a three-day hunting trip in Texas. He will fly overnight to Somalia and arrive here in time to spend New Year's Eve with American troops. He will spend Jan. 1 visiting relief operations, leaving Somalia at the end of the day.
"The President's visit will demonstrate United States concern for the people of Somalia, our commitment to humanitarian assistance and our support for Americans and United Nations forces," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said in a statement.
In reporting on the military's strategy, officials said that after a combined French-U.S. Marine force takes control of Hoddur, American troops will move into Bardera on Christmas Day, Gailalassi on Dec. 27 and Belet Huen on Dec. 28.
The Americans opened their campaign on Dec. 9 by taking Mogadishu, then Bela Dogle, Baidoa and Kismayu--all without serious opposition.
Marine Col. Fred Peck, spokesman for the Somali task force, said the accelerated schedule results not only from the lack of opposition but also from the "political progress" gained through agreements of cooperation by two key rival Somali clans.
"We thought we would have to have more troops in here" to control the eight targeted areas, Peck said. But, because of the lack of opposition, "we are using companies where we thought we would need battalions."
Reaching Belet Huen, just 18 miles north of Mogadishu, "completes the list," said another senior officer of the remaining schedule. That maneuver also would complete the first three of four phases of the mission outlined when the United Nations asked the Americans to lead a multinational coalition to secure a nationwide distribution of food and relief supplies to starved Somalis.
But the fourth phase--the transition from a U.S.-led coalition to a U.N. observer force--increasingly is becoming a far more difficult objective.
Robert B. Oakley, President Bush's special envoy here, said the American goal remains to "create a secure environment" so food and other relief supplies will reach needy Somalis. But when that happens, the American role will change--and diminish--Oakley said in an interview.
"Disarmament of the clans is not our goal," he said in reference to the groups whose civil war has caused famine and the deaths of 300,000 Somalis.
But disarmament is the aim of U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who has called on the United States to remove the weapons from this heavily armed nation as a prelude to its political reorganization.
Boutros-Ghali's views were repeated by Col. Jim Cox, a Canadian and the ranking officer for the U.N. forces that preceded the American intervention. Unlike the optimistic assessment offered by the Americans, Cox said the situation "still hasn't improved as quickly as we had hoped. The question of disarmament is still a question."
Cox insisted that "the spirit" of the U.N. directive establishing the coalition force was "to get all weapons off the streets--pistols, knives, slingshots, all the way to the heavy stuff, artillery." When asked if this were possible, Cox answered with another dig at the American view--that some U.S. combat forces will be able to depart within a few months if not weeks.
Disarmament, Cox insisted, "is achievable, but the question is, can it be done in the time available?"
The American force already is being shifted from an emphasis on combat to logistics and supply. Because of lessened security concerns here, "we don't need as many combat troops," said the senior Marine officer.
The success Boutros-Ghali has enjoyed in persuading nations, besides the United States, to contribute troops also has led the Americans to change the nature of the force here. "We have to provide the logistics and supply units for" the foreign combat troops, the officer said. "Most of them can't do that for themselves."
As for the President's visit, it will occur three weeks before Bush leaves office. The swift tour--which officials said is designed to show the commander in chief's concern for American forces--will recall Bush's Thanksgiving, 1990, visit to troops he had sent to Saudi Arabia in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
Bush is the nation's most traveled President. But the Somali visit will be his first to sub-Saharan Africa since he became chief executive. Unlike other overseas presidential trips, Bush, traveling aboard Air Force One, will not be accompanied by a separate jet of reporters and camera crews: A small news media contingent will travel with Bush aboard his jet.
Only two senior aides--National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Fitzwater--are expected to travel with the President.
When the Somali deployment was planned in late November, White House officials spoke optimistically about completing it and bringing troops home by Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
But that deadline, increasingly, looks as if it will go unmet.
Meantime, on Tuesday, there were signs of progress in removing one key threat against the U.S.-led forces when the two warring clans carried out an agreement to remove their technicals from Mogadishu. Technicals are jeeps, pickups and other small vehicles on which Somali gangs have mounted various weapons. Technicals--a term sometimes applied to the gang members themselves--were the main weaponry in the Somali civil war.
In keeping with an agreement Oakley brokered Monday, 40 technicals on each side moved out of the capital Tuesday. Cox said that one of the clan chiefs, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, also agreed to pull out artillery within the next few days.
The dangers the technicals can pose became clear again late Monday when five American vehicles stumbled into a firefight between two technicals. Peck said one of the American vehicles opened fire, although the members of the U.S. convoy were "innocent bystanders" not targeted by the Somali units. When the Americans approached, the Somalis fled.
Also Tuesday, Marines pulled out of the port of Kismayu, turning the town over to 200 Belgian paratroopers, the Associated Press reported.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.