By GEORGE GEDDA, Associated Press Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Secretary of State Colin Powell (newsweb sites) gave assurances Monday of full U.S. support for Haiti’s interim government but said democracy cannot flourish until politically motivated private armies lay down their weapons.

“Without disarmament, Haiti’s democracy will be at risk,” Powell said at a news conference with Haiti’s interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue. Latortue told Powell that all of Haiti’s political parties agree that municipal, legislative and presidential elections should be held in 2005.

Powell said prospects are good for sending a U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping force to replace the U.S.-led multinational force that arrived shortly after the Feb. 29 departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Almost 2,000 U.S. troops are serving in Haiti and are expected to leave in June, along with Canadian and Chilean troops. Their combined total is about 3,600 troops.

Most Caribbean leaders have refused to participate in the U.S.-led international force, angry that the Security Council refused their urgent plea to send troops in time to save Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected leader. Trinidad has said it may send troops to Haiti.

Powell rejected proposals by some of Haiti’s Caribbean neighbors for an inquiry into circumstances of Aristide’s sudden departure five weeks ago.

“I don’t think any purpose would be served by such an inquiry,” Powell said. “Haiti was on the verge of a total security collapse.”

“On the last weekend in February, I think we averted a bloodbath,” he said.

Aristide and many Caribbean leaders allege the United States coerced Aristide into leaving. The Bush administration insists that Aristide left Haiti voluntarily. Caribbean countries have not recognized the interim government, arguing that Aristide is Haiti’s legitimate leader based on elections held in 2000. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., says Aristide was the victim of a U.S.-sponsored coup d’etat.

Powell pledged to help Haiti’s new government earn recognition within the 15-member Caribbean Community.

Aristide initially took up residence in the Central African Republic. He went to Jamaica about three weeks ago for family reasons, the Jamaican government said. Little has been heard from Aristide since his arrival there.

U.S. officials have pressed Latortue in recent days not to give government positions to leaders of armed groups who have criminal backgrounds.

About 10 days after his appointment as prime minister, Latortue appeared in public with some insurgent leaders and hailed them as freedom fighters.

Powell said Latortue assured him Haitian government posts won’t go to criminals or human rights violators.

“I’m sure, as we go forward, any names that are known to us who are involved in wrongdoing or acts of violence we will make known,” Powell said.

Latortue announced Monday he would create a commission modeled after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with past crimes and grievances. He didn’t give details.

Latortue said he pleaded with Powell for more international aid.

“Haiti is in a state of total bankruptcy,” Latortue said. “We’re asking international donors to assist us with some of the urgent tasks at hand, particularly with creating opportunities with jobs.”

Powell said $9 million will be released for a special Organization of American States mission. The United States would spend an estimated $55 million on economic and humanitarian assistance this year in Haiti, he said.

“Our purpose is to help the people and leadership of Haiti to make a new beginning and to build a future of hope for Haiti,” he said.

Powell briefly visited an AIDS (newsweb sites) clinic partially financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development before heading into more talks with government leaders at the National Palace.