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U.S. Sends Reinforcements As Somali Withdrawal Nears

By Dele Olojede
Newsday

MOGADISHU, Somalia

In the waning days of U.S. intervention in Somalia, Army Maj. Gen. Thomas Montgomery finds himself in the altogether unhappy position of being proved right.

It took nearly 100 American casualties in a single battle -- including 18 dead and one captured -- for Montgomery's superiors to send him the heavy firepower he said he needed to protect his troops serving with the United Nations in this east African nation.

"I don't feel vindicated at all," the soft-spoken general with boyish good looks insists. "I am just very happy to have the reinforcements that we now have here."

As thousands of reinforcements poured into Mogadishu during the past two weeks, accompanied by tanks and artillery pieces, the commander of U.S. forces in Somalia now has more punch than he asked for at a time he no longer really needs it. Hostilities have ceased, at least for now, and President Clinton has set March 31 for withdrawal of American GIs from Somalia.

If the massive reinforcement seems a little belated, Montgomery is not the one to say so. In his bare-bones office on the second floor of the former U.S. Embassy building here, the general offered that the forces, by their mere presence, could at least deter further attacks against Americans, if not much else.

More than two weeks before the Oct. 3 battle with a clan militia loyal to Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid, Montgomery sent an urgent cable to the Pentagon asking for tanks and armored vehicles.

In the public outrage that followed the heavy U.S. losses in that battle, Defense Secretary Les Aspin was forced to accept blame for having earlier turned down Montgomery's request. Clinton then doubled the U.S. presence here, but also sent an envoy to negotiate a tidy U.S. disengagement.

In his battle-scarred headquarters, Montgomery is struggling to suppress any expressions of vindication.

"I had absolutely no pleasure in any of this controversy," he said.

He did praise Aspin for publicly taking the blame for denying him the armor. "I have great respect for Mr. Aspin's personal demonstration of leadership for taking responsibility for something like that," Montgomery said.

Montgomery was posted here in March as the United States prepared to turn over Operation Restore Hope to the United Nations. By the May 5 hand-off, he had been appointed deputy commander of U.N. forces, nominally reporting to Turkish Gen. Cevik Bir and retaining control over remaining U.S. troops.

But not only did he not receive the reinforcements he requested, he also had no direct control of 400 U.S. Army Rangers sent to him for special search-and-seizure operations against Aidid and his militia. As reports of heavy Ranger casualties came in on the night of Oct. 3, Montgomery's aides said, the Army general bit his lips in cold fury.

In an interview with Newsday, Montgomery said he preferred to not dwell on the unpleasant immediate past. The Rangers have been withdrawn and all U.S. forces are now unified under his command. Plus, said the general, his newly arrived 30 M1-A1 tanks, eight self-propelled howitzers and 48 Bradley armored vehicles are more than sufficient to prevent a recurrence of the Oct. 3 nightmare, when enough armor could not be readily deployed to rescue Rangers pinned down by enemy fire.

"You have to be insane to want to bring down on you the kind of firepower now available," he said.