By Gary Marx Tribune foreign correspondent

Three months after intervening to stabilize this devastated country, a U.S.-led multinational force Tuesday turned over command to United Nations (newsweb sites) peacekeepers who face the daunting task of disarming militias and creating a viable police force in preparation for elections.

In a low-key ceremony attended by Haiti’s top leaders along with Marine Brig. Gen. Ronald Coleman, commander of the multinational force, the UN flag was raised over a parade ground and several dozen peacekeepers standing in formation donned the UN’s powder-blue berets.

But the festivities were tempered by the complexity of the task and the memory of the failed UN peacekeeping mission here in the 1990s that led to violence and polarization, culminating in the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on Feb. 29.

In a message read by a special envoy, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (newsweb sites) reminded the small crowd of the UN’s failed mission and urged Haiti’s transitional government to use the presence of UN peacekeepers “to bring about a process of nationwide dialogue and reconciliation.”

“The stakes are high,” his message read. “This time, let us get it right.”

Premier hopeful

Haiti’s interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue also urged Haitians to “seize this opportunity” to foster democracy. But he requested UN help in disarming gangs and former soldiers so that a secure environment is in place for elections scheduled for next year.

The prime minister also asked the UN to help attack the poverty he described as the root cause of Haiti’s chronic instability. Haiti has had more than 30 coups in 200 years.

“This is the task ahead of us,” Latortue said. “It’s immense.”

Tuesday’s ceremony, held in blazing heat at the Haitian National Police Academy, came at a difficult time for the country, which last week suffered devastating floods that have killed more than 1,700 in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The event, which featured a Haitian band in white dress uniforms, was largely symbolic because the 1,900 U.S. troops, the main contingent in the 3,600-member multinational force, are to remain for about a month.

Most of the 6,700 UN peacekeepers have not arrived, though small contingents from Brazil, Nepal, Chile, Peru and several other nations participated in Tuesday’s ceremony.

The mandate for the UN mission in Haiti is six months, but Adama Guindo, a UN representative heading the mission, said Monday that the organization is making a long-term commitment to transform Haiti.

“You can’t just fix the problem and run,” Guindo said.

Latortue said after the ceremony that he would try to persuade U.S. forces to stay longer and, barring that, he hoped UN peacekeepers would remain in Haiti until Feb. 2006, when an elected president should take office.

Marine Lt. Col. David Lapan, spokesman for the multinational force, said U.S. troops initially fought fierce gun battles in Haiti. But in recent weeks there have been few clashes and no U.S. soldiers were killed in action during the deployment.

At least four Haitians were killed, he said.

Marine: Mission accomplished

“We have at least been able to bring security and stability back to precrisis levels,” Lapan said. “It’s allowing the UN force to come into a stable environment.”

Robert McGuire, a Haiti expert at Trinity College in Washington, credited the U.S.-led multinational force with securing the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and other cities.

But he said that rebels and former soldiers that toppled Aristide dominate many smaller towns and rural areas. McGuire also questioned whether UN peacekeepers will be as effective as U.S. troops in maintaining order.

“The Haitians respect the U.S. Marines as professional troops and as troops they can’t mess around with,” McGuire said. “Whether they’ll have the same attitude toward the peacekeepers remains to be seen.”

There also is the troubling issue of disarmament, which experts say is crucial if Haiti is to have any chance at stability. UN officials have said little about how they will go about the process, but experts warn it will be difficult to disarm groups who are the de facto rulers in many parts of Haiti.

Police force needs help

The 1,500-member Haitian National Police, which is expected to be overhauled and expanded under the UN mission, also is too weak to force a significant surrender of weapons.

Several Haitians at a languid outdoor market near the parade grounds said they were unaware U.S. forces were preparing to give way to UN peacekeepers.

Paul-Lucner Camilos, a 37-year-old welder, said he’s hopeful the UN mission can help improve his life.

“I’m hoping the troops can assist us in basic necessities,” Camilos said. “If they can do that, I don’t care where they are from.”