Bush pledges commitment to Liberia

MONROVIA, Liberia &

President Bush, cheering Liberians to rebound from a 14-year civil war that left their nation in ruins, said today that the U.S. will keep lending a hand to make Liberia a symbol of liberty for Africa and the world.

"You know one thing I've learned, and I suspect the people of Liberia have learned, is it's easier to tear a country down than it is to rebuild a country," Bush said on the final stop of his five-nation tour of Africa. "And the people of this good country must understand the United States will stand with you as you rebuild your country."

Liberia, founded by freed American slaves, is in depressingly poor shape following the years of civil strife that ended in 2003. Many rotted houses look like they're held together by sheer will. Billboards warn against mob violence, rape, corruption and AIDS.

Even in the darkest moments of the conflict, Bush said, Liberians never gave up on their dream that their nation would again become the "land of the free."

Bush praised Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman ever elected to lead a nation on the continent. He said he's proud of the work that the U.S. and Liberia are doing to improve education, battle disease and heal the wounds of war.

"You are making progress and it's possible because of the iron will of the lady you lovingly refer to as 'Ma,'" Bush said. "That would be you, Madame President. I appreciate the fact you've ushered in an age of reform, and you've opened up a new chapter in the relationship between our countries."

Sirleaf noted that never before in the history of U.S.-Liberia relations have the presidents of both nations met four times in the span of four years &

all following the civil war she called a time when "the forces of evil hijacked the Liberian state."

"We thank God that the guns of war are silent, our reconciliation process is under way, our people are beginning to sleep more soundly at night, our children are smiling again and Liberians at home and abroad are reclaiming pride and national identity," she said.

Sirleaf urged continued U.S. financial support of U.N. peacekeepers deployed in her nation.

"We understand the need, Mr. President, for reducing the level of support for the peacekeeping force, but please do not do so, so sharply as to affect our security until our forces are ready."

The U.S. government is pumping in money for education, security, construction and disease prevention. Direct U.S. aid has totaled more than $750 million since the war ended. The president announced that the U.S. aid will provide — million textbooks to children by the start of the next school year and desks and seating for 10,000 students.

Bush's first trip as president to Africa in 2003 was overshadowed by talk of the brutal civil war in Liberia, then led by dictator Charles Taylor. Prodded by international appeals to intervene, Bush sent in the Marines later that year. It helped drive Taylor into exile.

After landing in Monrovia, named after President Monroe, Bush took a helicopter into the city from the airport, avoiding a long, bone-jarring car ride that reflects the deep dysfunction in this war-shattered country.

Though peaceful now, the prevalence of weapons in Liberia coupled with its other problems made this the most nerve-racking for the president's security detail. Blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeepers with guns and riot-guard shields patrolled the streets.

Many Liberians remain nervous about whether their road to recovery is going to last. Part of Bush's goal was to persuade them they won't be forgotten even when his presidency ends.

"I want the people of Liberia to know, Madame President, the United States stands with you," Bush said during a luncheon toast with told her. "We want to help you recover from a terrible period. We want you to build lives of hope and peace, and under your leadership, that's exactly what's happening."

Sirleaf opened the meal by asking the guests on the lawn of the Executive Mansion to join her in "drinking lustily" to the health and prosperity of the president and the United States, and "to the great friendship that Liberia enjoys with our No. — partner."

Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who once fled her own country for survival, won office in 2005. First lady Laura Bush attended her inauguration in Liberia, and Bush has since given Sirleaf the highest civil honor he can bestow, the Medal of Freedom.

Bush also visited a training center for Liberia's armed forces and holding an education event before flying back to Washington after a trip that focused on U.S. assistance to prevent disease and rebuild economies.

At stops in Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia, the president was showered in adulation. Bush got a day named in his honor in Benin and a highway named for him in Ghana. Huge crowds of cheering, flag waving Liberians lined Bush's drive to his meeting with Sirleaf.

"I loved all the smiles and the enthusiasm along the route," Bush said.

All this is a world away from Washington, where Bush's public approval has been mired around 30 percent for months, and the candidates gunning for his job get more headlines.

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