Originally: Use of Marines Is Discussed, but Volatility Makes Planning Difficult

Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 28, 2004; Page A14

The Pentagon has stepped up contingency planning for an international security force that could be sent to beleaguered Haiti, including the possible dispatch of as many as 2,200 Marines to help contain a crisis or assist in a political settlement, Bush administration officials said yesterday.

U.S. officials stressed that conditions remain too volatile to predict whether troops would be sent or for what mission, as the standoff continued among President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, democratic opposition leaders and loosely organized rebels. The rebels claimed control of another city yesterday.

President Bush and his national security team held fast to their position that a security force must follow a negotiated political solution, lest foreign troops or police forces find themselves in the middle of a dangerous civil war. Other governments agreed, and several have urged Aristide to resign as they worked on contingency plans of their own.

“Buffers are always bad,” said a senior U.S. official involved in Haiti policy. “You’re drawn into a conflict and you don’t have the ability to affect the outcome. You’re just holding people apart.”

A senior Pentagon official described increased urgency and seriousness in planning discussions that addressed a range of situations, from the relative calm possible with a political compromise to a complete breakdown of law and order. Five or six options were under discussion, the official said, ranging from small forces to large ones, involving various mixes of Army paratroopers, Navy ships and Marines.

The State Department warned last night that security in Haiti had “deteriorated significantly.” With major airlines halting flights to Haiti, the department advised U.S. citizens to “seek a safe haven and remain there until the situation improves or safe transport out of the country becomes available.”

Joanne Mariner, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division, warned yesterday that “a rebel attack on Port-au-Prince could lead to widespread bloodshed and indiscriminate destruction of civilian property.”

The Pentagon official said the administration’s most immediate concern is the safety of U.S. Embassy personnel and other foreign nationals in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Fifty Marines arrived this week to reinforce the embassy and other U.S. facilities.

The administration is contemplating positioning as many as 2,200 Marines in ships off the coast, most likely including elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The Marines, officials said, could assist with emergency rescue and evacuation, along with an ability to react to the difficulties of foreign citizens and Haitian refugees.

The unit’s Web site quoted Lt. Gen. H.P. Osman, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Lejeune, as telling Marines of the 24th MEU a week ago they might be dispatched to Haiti. “Things are bubbling right now in a nation in our own hemisphere, and . . . you’re the Marines I’m going to be looking at to possibly answer that contingency,” Osman was quoted as saying.

In the event of a settlement, U.S. forces could participate in an international peacekeeping force, defense officials said. But the lead in such a force — whether composed of police, soldiers or a combination — might be taken by Canada or France.

The part U.S. personnel would play remains undetermined.

Opinions differ about the proper makeup of a force, an issue that depends partly on conditions in Haiti. Some analysts and advocates say a military force strong enough to deter armed rebels should be dispatched right away. Others suggest that a political settlement is essential to clear the way for a lighter police presence.

The Bush administration would prefer that any security contingent be limited to a policing role. But policymakers are examining the possibility of deploying substantial combat units to provide stable conditions in which the peacekeepers can function.

“The police thing is ultimately where you want to get to, but the police have to be sure they’re entering a secure environment,” the Pentagon official said. “It’s really too early to predict anything with any certainty. We just don’t know what direction things will go.”

Canada became the latest government to withdraw its support from Aristide when Foreign Minister Bill Graham told an interviewer that Aristide should reconsider his insistence on finishing his term in February 2006. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made the same suggestion on Thursday, as did French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin the day before.

De Villepin met for an hour yesterday in Paris with Haitian Foreign Minister Joseph Philippe Antonio, presidential cabinet director Jean-Claude Desgranges and two cabinet members. De Villepin reiterated France’s call for Aristide to step down to end the violence.

“Each hour counts if we want to avoid an uncontrollable spiral of violence,” de Villepin said in the meeting, according to an aide. He said Haitians must work to install a transitional unity government. Haitian opposition leaders are due in Paris next week.

Correspondent Keith Richburg in Paris contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company