ABOARD THE USS BONHOMME RICHARD – Down in the hull, everything is ready. There are tractors, trucks and three huge landing craft. There’s water purifying equipment and plastic tarps and wood beams for building temporary shelters.
And there are more than 1,300 Marines ready to take it all ashore and get to work helping tsunami survivors.
But in the political mine field of southern Asia, getting American boots on the ground is a delicate concept – even for a strictly humanitarian mission.
While U.S. military helicopters have been flying supplies to stricken villages in Indonesia for a few days, plans to land a Marine expeditionary unit on Sri Lanka were put on hold after that nation’s government scaled back its request for help, possibly to avoid further strains on a shaky cease-fire with insurgents.
The island’s Tamil Tiger rebels objected to the presence of troops from the United States or neighboring India, saying they could be used as spies for the government. The rebels, which control a large portion of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, detest the U.S. and Indian governments because both officially list the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist group.
American officials said the Marines never intended to go into rebel-controlled areas.
U.S. commanders had earmarked the amphibious assault ships Bonhomme Richard and Duluth to spearhead relief efforts off Sri Lanka’s coast, but the ships have now joined the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its battle group off the hard-hit Indonesian island of Sumatra.
It’s not clear the Marines will go ashore there, either. The image of large numbers of Marines on shore would be politically sensitive in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where many people oppose the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Col. Thomas Greenwood, commanding officer of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard the Bonhomme Richard, said the Marines are aware of concerns in the region.
“We don’t want to offend anybody’s sensitivities,” he said. “The alleviation of suffering and the loss of human lives should trump politics. We want to be helpful without being bothersome.”
Helicopters from the Bonhomme Richard began relief flights Tuesday over Sumatra, where more than 100,000 people are feared dead and a million or more are homeless after the catastrophic Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami.
U.S. military helicopters have been key to easing aid bottlenecks and getting supplies out.
But the Marines had hoped to put troops on the ground to provide badly needed manpower for clearing roads and airfields and for building shelters for refugees.