US envoy-designee to UN skeptical of Somalia force

WASHINGTON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - The proposed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations voiced strong skepticism on Thursday over the merits of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Somalia and said the incoming Obama administration would closely examine the plan.

Earlier this week, the outgoing Bush administration circulated a draft Security Council resolution that would firm up a plan to deploy a U.N. peacekeeping force in war-torn Somalia to replace an existing African Union force.

That plan, which African countries have long been calling for, has been supported by outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but U.N. officials and some Security Council members have objected the situation is too dangerous.

"This (Somalia) is an enormously difficult and important challenge that the international community faces," Susan Rice said at a Senate committee hearing to confirm her designation as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Asked by Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, whether she thought a proposed U.N. force had any merits, Rice said such a move would have to be very carefully weighed.

"I am skeptical too, about the wisdom of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Somalia at this time," said Rice, who is no relation to the outgoing secretary of state.

"I certainly do support elements of the current resolution which is pending to strengthen the African Union and provide it with the resources that it needs," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

"The new administration will have to take a very careful and close look at whether, in six months' time, to in fact support the standing up of a U.N. force," she said, pointing to the "very tragic history" of previous U.N. involvement in Somalia.

Eighteen U.S. soldiers died and 73 were wounded in the "Battle of Mogadishu" in October 1993. The battle, which inspired the film "Black Hawk Down," marked the beginning of the end for a U.S.-U.N. peacekeeping force that left in 1995.

Islamists control most of southern Somalia, feuding clan militias hold sway elsewhere and 3,000 Ethiopian troops backing the weak government are now pulling out.

The Bush administration's draft calls on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to develop a mandate for the proposed U.N. force by April 15. The force's tasks, it said, should be to assist aid delivery, protect politicians and U.N. staff, monitor ceasefires and build up Somali security forces.

Susan Rice said a "multi-faceted approach" was needed to Somalia, including efforts for emergency relief, political reconciliation and a plan to deal effectively with the "terrorist challenge." (Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Editing by John O'Callaghan)