President Obama is sending about 100 special forces troops to central Africa to help target the leadership of the Lord's Resistance Army, a notorious militia that has been raping and pillaging in the remote jungles of northern Uganda and neighboring countries for more than two decades.
The first team of armed advisors arrived in Uganda on Wednesday. Over the next month, the remaining U.S. troops, most of them Army Green Berets, will be sent to Uganda and surrounding countries, including South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Congo.
In a letter notifying Congress on Friday, Obama said the goal of the U.S. mission was to assist regional African forces in removing "from the battlefield" the militia's leader, self-declared prophet Joseph Kony. But the U.S. troops will not fight unless fired upon, the letter said.
A militia known for forcing abducted children to fight and for mutilating its victims, the Lord's Resistance Army has long been condemned by the U.S. and human rights organizations for atrocities against civilians.
The militia keeps sex slaves, rapes women and has killed thousands of people. The dense jungle and lack of roads in the lawless border regions of northern Uganda have made it difficult for authorities to dismantle the rebel group and capture its messianic leader.
Sam Worthington, president of InterAction, an alliance of nongovernmental groups, said there was a clear need to stabilize the region, and he noted that the Ugandan government requested this intervention.
At the same time, Worthington, who was briefed on the operation by the administration, said there was a risk that the U.S. troops "could be drawn into a more active role, and Americans lives will be lost."
He said that ultimately the problem would require the political collaboration of the governments in the region.
Obama, in his letter to Congress, said that "although the U.S. forces are combat-equipped, they will only be providing information, advice and assistance to partner-nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self defense."
The move, in a broad way, reflects the desire of the Obama administration to be more active in security operations in Africa.
The deployment has been planned for months and grew out of legislation signed this year supporting increased U.S. efforts to help protect civilians from the Lord's Resistance Army, officials said.
After three years of incremental assistance to the Ugandan government, including the presence of some unarmed counter-terrorism advisors, the White House made the decision to ramp up its efforts in an attempt to take out Kony and end his reign of terror in the area, said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"If we are going to do this, let's not do it half-assed. Let's go in and try to wipe this guy out," the official said.
The Green Berets will work with regional armies to help protect people in isolated hamlets who have been preyed upon by the militia. The plan is, among other things, to help track the movements of the guerrillas and share intelligence from communications intercepts and satellite imagery.
Also, U.S. forces will help deliver communications gear to villagers, including cellphone towers and high-frequency radios that will enable them to notify the authorities when the Lord's Resistance Army swoops in.
Inspired by a combination of mysticism and eccentric Christian rhetoric, Kony, who is about 50, is on the U.S. terrorist list and is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity committed in two decades of civil war in northern Uganda.
The LRA has displaced about 400,000 civilians and has carried out an estimated 2,400 attacks and 3,400 abductions since 2008.
Though U.S. officials say there is no intention to involve the troops in battle, some African governments are likely to ask whether this is an exception to traditional American foreign policy of avoiding military involvement in sub-Saharan Africa, a region where the United States is generally thought to have humanitarian but not strategic interests.
One Senate aide said he expected Congress to be divided on the intervention, with some members concerned that the mission could expand if its limited objectives were not accomplished quickly.
"It is essential for the president to consult with Congress about any deployment of our military forces into harm's way. I regret that this was not done," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The act that set the mission in motion had substantial congressional support, including 201 cosponsors in the House and 64 in the Senate.
There was some immediate support from Congress for the White House decision.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) praised the move, saying it "may save innocent lives."
Bennett reported from Washington and Dixon from Johannesburg. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this story.