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First US Troops Exit Somalia, But Full Pullout Still Unclear

Marine spokesman says they will stay `as long as it takes'

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DESPITE today's departure of 850 United States soldiers from Somalia and early predictions of a quick withdrawal by the Bush administration, US military and civilian officials here acknowledge that the need for US troops is far from over.

The first group of US Marines, 850 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, left Somalia today, to be replaced by Australian troops.

Marine Col. Fred Peck, who announced the withdrawal Sunday, indicated that the country could be stable by the end of the month. But in a Monitor interview yesterday he said the US would not make a premature transfer of military control to the United Nations.

"Just because of the pride we have in the military, I don't think you'll see us having a sloppy handover," he said. "We're under no pressure to be out on a certain date. We'll take as long as it takes."

A lot has changed since the first Marines stepped ashore Dec. 9. Looting of relief supplies has decreased sharply as US and other foreign troops guard food convoys. Heavy weapons have been seized from militias and gangs. The streets of a number of towns, including the capital, have fewer guns in sight than at any time in the past two years, when rebels ousted Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre and the country fell into anarchy.

And 14 Somali factions meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, agreed Jan. 15 to an immediate cease-fire, disarmament, and release of prisoners of war. A national reconciliation conference is planned to open in Addis Ababa March 15 to negotiate an interim government for Somalia.

Even so, say US and relief officials here, a sudden handover to the UN could leave Somalia about where it was before Dec. 9: engulfed in anarchy and civil war, with a high rate of starvation and looters seizing many of the relief supplies.

The UN, Colonel Peck says, has yet to pass resolutions for the transfer that would cover command structures and rules for engagement.

Robert Oakley, chief US envoy to Somalia and a former ambassador here, says he is committed to a long rebuilding process in Somalia, but says the US must avoid trying to impose a political structure.

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