Originally: U.S. Scrambles to Find New Course in Haiti

Tuesday, February 24, 2004; Page A17

The Bush administration scrambled yesterday to find a fresh path to peace in Haiti and intensified planning for a potential humanitarian crisis as Haiti’s political opposition signaled its continued intention to reject a U.S.-backed power-sharing agreement.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell persuaded opposition leaders to reconsider for another day, but calls for stronger U.S. action increased as armed rebels vowed to march on the Haitian capital and oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide at gunpoint.

President Bush dispatched 50 Marines from Norfolk Naval Station to protect U.S. facilities in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Pentagon officials said the move should not be seen as the first step of a U.S. military intervention in the impoverished Caribbean nation.

“This is not phase one of the landing of a large U.S. force,” said a senior defense official involved in deliberations who spoke on the condition that he not be named. The Marines were assigned to help protect U.S. personnel and property, notably the U.S. Embassy and several other facilities.

U.S. armed forces already are under enormous strain from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Pentagon officials, who strongly oppose committing U.S. forces to Haiti for the second time in a decade. More than 20,000 troops backed Aristide’s return to power in 1994.

“We already have a lot going on,” the senior official said. “The force is stretched pretty thin at the moment.”

As Powell leaned on opposition leaders in a conference call, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) called on the Bush administration to take military action to prevent Haiti’s takeover by rebels, whose leaders include criminal suspects with a limited political agenda.

Conyers noted that the proposed political accord between Aristide and the democratic opposition would not include the insurgents.

“The United States must act now to help the embattled police force fight off these armed thugs,” Conyers said in a written statement. “I also call upon the Bush administration to help create a humanitarian zone, so that 268,000 Haitians dependent on food aid in northern Haiti will receive their much-needed provisions.”

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), wary of a Haitian exodus that could reach Florida, believes the administration should lead a multinational military or police force capable of establishing calm.

Nearly three weeks after a ragtag militia began seizing territory in northern Haiti, dozens of police have died and hundreds have fled their posts, yet the Bush administration does not “seem to have a Plan B,” a Graham aide said.

Powell, following up on a U.S.-led diplomatic mission to Port-au-Prince, spoke with opposition figure Andre Apaid Jr. and colleagues by telephone as a 5 p.m. Monday deadline neared. Powell urged them to drop their insistence that Aristide resign, and pledged that the United States and its allies would hold Aristide to his promise to share power.

“We went back at them. He emphasized how good this was. He made clear to them that this was the best thing they had going,” said State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos, who said Powell did not offer new inducements.

A number of analysts said that if opponents continue to insist on Aristide’s immediate resignation, the White House will be left with no easy options. Powell has said it will not support a solution that forces Aristide from power.

If the opposition rejects the compromise, the Bush administration would have to support Aristide, who accepted the conditions set by the international community, said former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins. He added that Aristide’s departure might not stabilize the situation, given Haiti’s weakened government and political leadership.

James Morrell, executive director of the Haitian Democracy Project, said the administration should push for Aristide’s replacement by a neutral transition government that would manage the country until elections were held.

“What we should be doing is supporting the democratic sector that still fortunately exists but is hanging on by its fingernails,” Morrell said. “What the Bush administration is trying to do is to keep Aristide in there.”

Acknowledging Haiti’s turmoil, the Department of Homeland Security yesterday halted the deportation of Haitians. The Bush administration is developing plans to halt a water-borne exodus by stopping boats and establishing a refugee camp, much as U.S. authorities did in the mid-1990s, when Haitian refugees occupied tent camps at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Pentagon opposes using Guantanamo because of the presence there of hundreds of men detained in Afghanistan and elsewhere as part of a global terrorism investigation.