Bush sends Rice to conflict
President Bush escalated the American response Wednesday to Russian military action in Georgia, ordering a humanitarian aid effort and dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the stricken region as Pentagon officials announced plans to rebuild the Georgian military.
Speaking in the Rose Garden, Bush accused Russia of seizing territory in Georgia and continuing its military campaign despite agreeing to a cease-fire.
The new words and actions from the White House came after sharp criticism from conservatives, including some in Georgia and the Bush administration, that his initial response was ineffectual.
“The United States of America stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia,” Bush said. “We insist that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected.”
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Tuesday said he would accept Russian terms for a cease-fire to end the fighting. The agreement, backed by France and the European Union, included a call for Georgia to return its troops to the positions held before hostilities broke out last week when Georgia defied Russia by launching an attack in South Ossetia.
On Wednesday, Russian tanks surrounded Gori, home of Georgia’s biggest military base, cut off roads leading out of town and began to rumble south toward the Georgian capital of Tbilisi before turning back. Witnesses reported widespread looting and lawlessness both in Gori and the smattering of villages that lead up to South Ossetia.
By midmorning today, Russian troops had begun to pull out of Gori but had not entirely handed over control.
Georgian soldiers in pickups lined up on the main highway from Tbilisi. At the final checkpoint into Gori, Russian and Georgian troops chatted as they awaited instructions.
The Pentagon emphasized that its initial concern would be providing relief supplies, but announced Wednesday that it would also begin efforts to rebuild the Georgian military.
“Our focus right now is on delivering humanitarian aid and taking care of the immediate needs of those who are caught in this conflict,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
The Bush administration’s position could make for a more confrontational relationship with Russia. Washington has threatened to keep Russia out of various international groups, such as the World Trade Organization, because of its military action.
Deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow could complicate a Bush administration push to build a missile defense system in Europe and its efforts to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program.
Georgia has strategic significance, partly because a key pipeline that carries oil from the Caspian Sea to the West passes through it.
Since 1997, the U.S. military has spent approximately $277 million in military aid to Georgia on uniforms, ammunition, communications equipment and vehicles.
A senior military officer involved in planning the mission said the new military assistance under consideration for Georgia could include more joint exercises, stepped-up military training, closer ties to the Georgian military command, and sales of equipment to replace vehicles and weapons destroyed in the five days of fighting.
The official acknowledged that there were risks to sending additional U.S. military equipment and personnel into the war-torn region. But the official said U.S. European Command, the Belgium-based headquarters responsible for organizing the mission, had determined that because Russia acquiesced to U.S. military flights bringing Georgian troops back to Tbilisi from Iraq, the chances of conflict were minimal.
“It’s never zero risk, but I think it will be OK,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the mission.
An Air Force C-17 plane loaded with tents, sleeping bags and medical supplies landed Wednesday in Georgia, and another cargo plane is due today. A military humanitarian assessment team is surveying the damage from the conflict.
Pentagon officials had hoped to send one of the Navy’s medical ships, the Comfort, to Georgia, but it is docked in Baltimore and it would take nearly a week to stock it and reassemble its crew. Instead, the Pentagon is considering chartering commercial ships in the region to get supplies to Georgia more quickly.
In his Rose Garden comments, Bush promised an extensive aid effort.
“This mission will be vigorous and ongoing,” he said.
News of Bush’s speech heartened Georgians who felt the United States had abandoned them. “It means the West realizes that we shouldn’t be left alone under siege,” said Mikheil Dolidze, a hospital director in Tbilisi.
Pentagon officials said no warships would be sent to the region, and military planners do not expect a large increase in the number of American military personnel on the ground. There are about 70 soldiers and Marines in Georgia, consisting of the staff of the embassy’s defense attache and about 60 military trainers who were preparing Georgian troops for deployment to Iraq.
“This isn’t envisioned as bringing in big, big forces,” the senior military official said.
The official said the Bush administration had requested a wider range of military options for consideration, and another government official said there was debate over whether larger Navy warships should be deployed to the Black Sea. But international treaties bar large warships from passing through the Bosporus, and the senior military official said the decision was made that military options were not practical.
“Most folks have accepted the fact that a military response is not the right thing to do,” the military official said.
Hard-line supporters of Georgia in the administration were dismayed that Washington initially sent only a mid-level State Department official, Matthew J. Bryza, as envoy to Tbilisi, noting that Russia watches such signals closely. The complaints are believed to be part of the motivation for sending Rice to the Georgian capital.
Before arriving in Tbilisi, Rice will visit French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who helped negotiate the cease-fire. Rice said her trip was meant to show support for the democratically elected Georgian government.
Rice also said she had talked with the two leading presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, and that they supported the administration’s initiatives in Georgia.
Obama, in a statement, said he supported the humanitarian aid effort. McCain, speaking to reporters, also backed Bush’s statement but said he remained worried about reports of violence and looting in Georgia.
Gori, a strategically important crossroads that was repeatedly bombed during Russian airstrikes, stood eerily silent Wednesday. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country’s troops had only been on the outskirts of the city to destroy ammunition abandoned by Georgian soldiers. He also said that looting would not be permitted.
“Russian peacekeepers have orders from the Russian president to strictly observe wartime laws,” he said. “The civilian population should be protected against all encroachments on their lives and dignity.”
There were some indications Russians were holding their fire. Health officials said only four civilians with war- related wounds were brought to the National Medical Hospital in Tbilisi on Wednesday, compared with about 30 the previous day.
But fleeing civilians in Georgia said irregular militias were entering ethnic Georgian villages to rob, rape and set fire to property. The roads to those regions were closed by the Russians, so the reports could not be confirmed.
In Gori, the civilians left were mostly elderly, who said they had been abandoned by their government and soldiers.
“They will come and rob us,” said Archem Moradelli, who said he’d planned to celebrate the truce over homemade wine with neighbors -- until he heard the shooting in the streets. “They can come again if they want. Nobody looks after us.”
Times staff writers Megan K. Stack and Borzou Daragahi in Georgia, Seema Mehta in Michigan and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.