WASHINGTON -- The United States dispatched an aircraft carrier yesterday with part of a force that could launch an invasion of Haiti as early as next week, while the Clinton administration scrambled to reverse public and congressional opposition to an invasion.
President Clinton, who met with his top advisers on final tactics yesterday, decided to deliver a televised address tomorrow at 9 p.m. from the Oval Office, outlining plans to restore Haiti's elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power.
Father Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest, was ousted by a military junta three years ago. Ever since, the United States has been in the vanguard of attempts to restore him to power, first by economic pressure and now with intensifying military threats.
Although the administration has decided against seeking congressional approval before an invasion, public opinion polls showing as much as 73 percent opposition to an invasion are propelling a potentially embarrassing setback for the president on Capitol Hill.
Democratic leaders struggled yesterday to fend off efforts by opponents of an invasion to stage a vote before an invasion occurs. Although resolutions under discussion wouldn't tie the president's hands, they would undercut his moral clout.
"Usually on the eve of military intervention there's a tendency to rally around the commander-in-chief," one Pentagon aide said. In this case, "the polls are going the other way."
"It's possible that there will be a vote," House Speaker Thomas S. Foley told reporters yesterday after he, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt held a 45- minute meeting with Mr. Clinton.
The major first-strike force of a U.S.-led, multinational invasion of Haiti set sail from Norfolk yesterday, opening the military endgame of the crisis and pointing to an invasion as early as next week.
"In terms of the end result, we are there," said a senior Defense Department official who asked not to be named. "There is far too much set in motion to see anyone now stopping it, or holding it in suspense very long."
The aircraft carrier USS America headed out of home port with elements of the 18th Airborne Corps, including the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division, Army Rangers, and other special forces.
More ships coming
It will be followed today by another aircraft carrier, the USS Eisenhower, with troops of the 10th Mountain Division, which served in Somalia, and their Black Hawk helicopters.
The amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney, which will be the control center for any invasion, is also preparing to sail.
Prime targets would be the docks and airport at Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. Once the two entry points are secured by Navy Seals and Rangers, reinforcements would arrive by sea and land in a display of the Pentagon's current doctrine of overwhelming force.
The second-wave assault force is assembling at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 90 miles from Haiti. Defense officials say it will include Air Force A-10 ground-attack jets and AC-130 gunships.
Several hundred military reservists are expected to volunteer for such specific support roles as water purification, medical services and policing.
The gathering military momentum coincides with an intense political effort to prepare the public for what opinion polls suggest would be an overwhelmingly unpopular initiative, with almost three out of four voters opposing an invasion of Haiti.
From the military perspective, a momentum has now been achieved that would be difficult to stop.
By Tuesday, an initial invasion force of 5,000 to 6,000 men will be stationed off Haiti, with reinforcements standing by to be airlifted or shipped in, according to Defense officials. Roll-on, roll-off cargo carriers, know as ro-ros, are being loaded with the heavier military equipment that will be deployed during the second phase of the invasion.
"There is a law of physics once you get those ro-ros going in a certain direction," said a senior Army officer involved in the planning.
One crucial factor: The two aircraft carriers heading for Haiti this week are carrying land and airborne troops, who are not used to sitting for long periods on warships. They differ in that respect from the 1,800 Marines who have been deployed since Aug. 11 aboard the USS Wasp, as a potential evacuation force for U.S. citizens on Haiti.
"It is one thing when you keep Marines floating around on ships as part of a continuous effort. That's what they are there for," said the senior Defense official. "When you take Army troops for a specific reason on Navy ships, you probably aren't going to keep them aboard for long."
The carriers will arrive off Haiti this weekend. They will steam below their top speed of 30 knots to give pilots the opportunity to practice night and day landings so that they are well-rehearsed on arrival, according to Defense officials.