WASHINGTON -- In a modern office suite in Georgetown, the exiled government of Haiti is making plans to go home.
Advisers fill conference rooms, fine-tuning a blueprint for a new government. Telephones ring constantly, signaling calls from reporters, aides on Capitol Hill and supporters of the exiles.
Across town, in a spare apartment, ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is on the phone hourly with members of the Clinton administration.
"There is a sense of urgency," said Jean-Claude Martineau, a spokesman for Father Aristide, between live radio interviews. "We have to be aware of the fact that something could happen pretty soon."
Almost three years ago to the date, Father Aristide was led away in handcuffs from Haiti's National Palace in a military coup. The mastermind of the takeover was a former military ally, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras.
But now it is General Cedras who could be led away.
Clinton's drawn line
The Clinton administration has said unequivocally that the general must leave on his own or be removed by military force. Either way, Father Aristide could return to the palace within 10 days of General Cedras' removal.
Father Aristide, President Clinton has argued time and again, is the embodiment of Haiti's struggling democracy. In 1990, the populist Roman Catholic priest, who had no political experience, was elected by 67 percent of the vote in Haiti's first election since the collapse of the Duvalier dictatorships.
But even now, with Mr. Clinton's full endorsement and with 20,000 U.S. troops encircling Haiti, doubts about Father Aristide run deep in Washington.
Many in Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, have expressed continued concerns about the diminutive, soft-spoken priest, ranging from Father Aristide's ability to govern to what many call his unpredictable and arrogant nature.
"His record in office leaves much to be desired," said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, the influential Indiana Democrat who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Mr. Hamilton said Father Aristide's popularity in Haiti is "unquestionable," but during his brief seven months in office, he displayed "a very strong strain of anti-Americanism."
Mr. Hamilton complained that he has not been able to get a straight answer from Father Aristide on whether or not he even supports a military invasion.
Part of the confusion stems from mixed signals that Father Aristide has sent. As recently as last summer, Father Aristide told reporters: "Never, never, never would I agree to be restored to power by an invasion."
"Suppose intervention occurs, Aristide is restored to power, you have this handoff from American military forces to United Nations peacekeeping forces," Mr. Hamilton said. "I don't know what Aristide's attitude is going to be towards that U.N. force. He could easily say 'Get out of here.' "
Republican critics have been even harsher.
The Senate Republican Policy Committee concluded in a statement this week: "During his time as president of Haiti, Aristide was hardly a role model for democratic leadership."
The committee said Father Aristide would encourage retribution against his opponents and incite mob violence. Republican sources also leaked a report that Father Aristide recently dispatched a former police chief with a checkered human rights record to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to recruit refugees for a future police force.
Lawrence Pezzullo, a former special adviser on Haiti for the Clinton administration, said Father Aristide's main weakness is his inability to compromise, to reach out and form a political coalition.
Mr. Pezzullo said that as a result, Father Aristide runs the risk when he returns of alienating himself from other factions in the Haitian parliament.
'Have to use force'
"If he goes back without a political base, he's going to have to use force to remain in power and the only force he will have at ZTC his disposal is the international occupation force," Mr. Pezzullo said.
But supporters said Father Aristide will work with the United Nations after he returns. They say he supports the use of force to rid Haiti of its military regime.
In no surprise to his allies, Father Aristide chose to speak from the pulpit to signal his support of an invasion. At a Mass in a Washington suburb last Sunday, Father Aristide used a metaphor to explain his feelings to hundreds of Haitian expatriates.
Speaking in Creole, he said if a woman is nine months pregnant and she has not yet delivered her baby, then a doctor must perform a Caesarean section. "I am giving the green light for the operation to proceed," Father Aristide said, according to one of the worshipers.
Those closest to Father Aristide were not shocked by his support of the invasion.
Michael D. Barnes, an adviser and former Maryland congressman, said an important turning point for Father Aristide was the death last month of his friend and fellow priest, the Rev. Jean-Marie Vincent.