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First U.S. Marines Leave Somalia

By Scott Kraft
Los Angeles Times

MOGADISHU, Somalia

The first significant pullout of U.S. forces from Somalia began Tuesday with the departure of more than 550 Marines who have been ducking snipers in this capital and feeding the starving in Baidoa since before Christmas.

The group, part of an 850-Marine unit leaving this week, halted the six-week military escalation that has brought 25,500 American troops to Somalia to fight a war on anarchy and famine. And it turned attention on the United Nations, which must appoint a new commander for the next phase of Operation Restore Hope.

"This sends the right signal," said Robert Oakley, the U.S. special envoy in Somalia. "It tells the international community that others are fully able to take our place and that the operation can continue as a U.N. operation without any fall-off in effectiveness."

That hand-off from American to U.N. command is a crucial next step in the operation. Even if a new commander is appointed soon, the transition is unlikely to be complete before March 1. The United States also has promised to retain some troops, perhaps as many as 5,000, during the early days of U.N. control.

More than half the 850 Marines in the 3rd Battalion, 9th Regiment, stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., left Tuesday aboard two chartered jets and were scheduled to arrive in Southern California Wednesday. The rest were to leave Somalia Wednesday and Thursday, also bound for the United States.

They were among the signs of a winding down in operations, as many of the 11,000 troops from 22 countries began to take over American operations on the ground. The M.V. Phillips, one of the large supply ships for the Marine Expeditionary Unit stationed off the coast, was being reloaded and could leave by Friday.

But no other large units of Americans will be sent home until the U.N. appoints a new general to take over from U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Robert B. Johnston, commander of Operation Restore Hope. "That will be our signal to download," Johnston said Tuesday.

The departure of the Marine unit Tuesday appeared designed to coincide with President Bush's last full day in office. Bush had promised to have at least some troops home before he turned the presidency over to Democratic President-elect Bill Clinton.

Besides appointing a new commander, the United Nations needs troop commitments from foreign governments. Most of the foreign troops now in the U.S.-led coalition, and several dozen other countries' armies, have agreed to consider joining the U.N. effort in Somalia.

But many first wanted assurances from the United Nations that the rules of engagement now being used by the United States would not change. U.N. forces have typically allowed soldiers to shoot only if fired upon. But in Somalia, U.S. rules have allowed troops to take pre-emptive action, if they felt their lives threatened.

Many of the Marines said they felt hamstrung by their mission's humanitarian purpose, and the initial unwillingness of commanders to allow troops to disarm Somali civilians in Mogadishu.

"There were times when we lollygagged around," said Lance Cpl. Brian Taylor, 20, of Columbus, Ohio. "If we'd just gone in there, got it done by force, it would've been better."

Even in Baidoa, the troops found themselves threatened while distributing food. "It was frustrating," said Lance Cpl. Marcel Teixeira, 24, of Boston. "We would be giving food and there were people everywhere with guns. You had to take a hostile attitude because, No. 1, we wanted to get out of here alive."