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Pirate pursuit draws admiral’s flak

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MANAMA, Bahrain — Days before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to ask the United Nations to authorize "all necessary measures" against piracy from Somalia, the U.S. military, which would help carry out that policy, said in effect: Not so fast.

The commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet expressed doubt Friday about the wisdom of launching attacks against Somali pirates on land, as the draft U.N. resolution proposes. A Pentagon spokesman warned against the urge to grasp for a quick and easy military solution to a complex international problem.

U.S. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told reporters that striking pirate camps in lawless Somalia could open a can of worms. It is difficult to identify pirates, and the potential for killing innocent civilians "cannot be overestimated," Gortney said.

There is a huge risk to any U.S. forces involved, whether small commando units or larger operations. And U.S. commanders still have sour memories of the humiliating "Blackhawk Down" outcome of U.S. military intervention in Somalia more than a decade ago.

Concern about possible mistaken identity extends to operations at sea, too, since pirate ships are often indistinguishable from ragtag fishing vessels. The military is also worried about what would be done with captured pirates, who would try or imprison them.

"There are many that are seeking a simple military solution, or solely a military solution to address the piracy issue," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. "I think that we need to take a more comprehensive look a this, and while there may be a military component, this is an issue that has to be addressed more broadly."

In a wide-ranging interview at his 5th Fleet headquarters, Gortney said the better solutions are to improve the security, stability and government in Somalia, and to resolve legal questions so militaries that capture pirates can detain them and bring them to trial.

Pentagon officials also say shipping companies might solve much of their own problem by hiring even lightly armed guards to ward off what are often crude takeovers by relatively small bands of pirates.

Currently, most foreign navies patrolling the Somali coast have been reluctant to detain suspects because of uncertainties over where they would face trial, since Somalia has no effective central government or legal system.

The draft U.N. Security Council resolution proposes that all nations and regional groups cooperating with Somalia's U.N.-backed government in the fight against piracy and armed robbery "may take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia."

Rice is presenting the draft at the U.N. early next week.

Bush administration officials in Washington say that while the proposal would give the U.S. military more options in confronting the pirates, it does not mean the U.S. is planning a ground assault.

The resolution would set maximum parameters only, something that military officials say they endorse. The problem comes in deciding when and how to fully use any military force.

Whitman was asked repeatedly to say whether the U.S. military supports the full range of options the resolution appears to allow, and would be willing to carry them through. He declined to directly answer the question, saying he would not speculate on future military operations.

A senior administration official, who spoke anonymously because the U.N. hasn't yet debated the proposal, stressed that any suggestion of military action is only part of the proposal, but questioned why, if the military had solid intelligence and the risk of collateral damage were low, there would be reluctance to act on it.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.N. proposal is just one approach to multiple problems in impoverished, chaotic Somalia. The broad parameters of possible military action are justified, McCormack said, because "the pirates come from land, and that land happens to be in Somalia."

At the U.N., the proposal is encountering resistance from some Security Council members like South Africa and Indonesia that have often voiced sovereignty concerns about a major initiative, particularly by the council's Western powers.

Indonesian Ambassador Marty Natalegawa told reporters Friday the U.S. plan could conflict with the U.N.'s "Law of the Sea" treaty, which sets rules and settles disputes over navigation, fishing and economic development of the open seas and establishes environmental standards.

"I still have a problem with this onshore business," he said. "We have a regime that governs the law of the seas ... and we cannot simply willy-nilly and as we please set that aside as a situation dictates."

Somalia's tenuous government has no handle on security. Piracy is booming. An estimated 1,500 pirates are based in the semiautonomous Puntland region, raking in millions of dollars.

Somalia's government has welcomed the U.S. initiative.

If the U.S. military gets involved on the ground in Somalia, it would be the first time since 1992-1993 when U.S. intervention culminated in a deadly clash in Mogadishu followed by a humiliating withdrawal of American forces.

A few U.S. Navy ships already are patrolling the waters off Somalia.