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Bush pledges American support to Liberia

President Bush said Thursday that the United States is committed to helping restore lives of "hope and peace" to Liberia, a poor African nation that ties its founding and its renewed freedom to America.
Image:xA billboard welcoming US President George Bush to Liberia
A billboard welcoming President Bush stands near Spriggs Payne Airport in Monrovia, Liberia, on Thursday. Lberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is depicted next to Bush on the sign.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush said Thursday that the United States is committed to helping restore lives of "hope and peace" to Liberia, a poor African nation that ties its founding and its renewed freedom to America.

Bush landed in Monrovia, the capital city named for President James Monroe. This nation — founded by freed American slaves and ruined by a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 — is proudly trying to revive itself under a democratic government.

"The U.S. message is we want to help you recover from a terrible period," Bush said.

Liberia is in depressingly poor shape. Many rotted houses look like they're held together by sheer will. Billboards warn against mob violence, rape, corruption and AIDS.

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 is to announce that the U.S. aid will provide 1 million textbooks to children by the start of the next school year and desks and seating for 10,000 students, White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

"They're making rapid progress, but there's a long way to go," Perino told reporters on Air Force One before Bush landed in Monrovia.

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 — his last stop in Africa — the most nerve-racking for the president's security detail.

Blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeepers with guns and riot-guard shields patrolled ahead of Bush's arrival.

Meeting with woman president
The centerpiece of Bush's quick stop here is a meeting with Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman ever elected president in Africa. No leader on the continent has warmer relations with the American president.

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 her the highest civil honor he can bestow, the Medal of Freedom.

Red, white and blue flags of Liberia were hoisted side-by-side with the American flag on the main avenue leading to Liberia's Executive Mansion. Student groups turned out to receive the president, but most access roads to the city were blocked for security reasons.

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.

Bush is meeting with Sirleaf, visiting a training center for Liberia's armed forces and holding an education event before flying back to Washington. He has also spent time in Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana in a trip focused on health and economic aid.

Journey of goodwill
For Bush, Liberia is the perfect cap to a journey of goodwill — in both directions. He's been offering aid and attention to Africa, and in return, been 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.

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.

The United States is viewed honorably here for helping Liberia shift from a dictatorship to a fledgling democracy.

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