Early days of U.S. mission successful, but obstacles to Haitian stability remain U.S. INTERVENTION IN HAITI

September 25, 1994|By Gilbert Lewthwaite | Gilbert Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Despite the firefight last night that killed several Haitians, the United States' intervention in Haiti has been a smooth operation, especially given that this time a week ago everyone was preparing for greater bloodshed.

U.S. forces control all this nation's strategically important ports and airports. They are increasingly visible in the major towns, including Cap-Haitien, where last night's clash occurred, and they have extended their presence ever deeper into the countryside.

They have ended the Haitian military's ability to put up any form of standing battle by destroying all their heavy weapons and have forced army dictator Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras to call his thugs off the civilian population that has lived in terror for the past three years.

In the streets, the people are more relaxed than they have been for years, aware the U.S. troops are now ready to protect them.

Despite the initial impression of confusion over the soldiers' orders and their powerlessness to prevent the killing of one civilian demonstrator and the beating of others on Monday and Tuesday, the bottom line is that U.S. military control of this nation is now firm.

The killing of the demonstrator had one immediate effect, probably for the best. It alerted the Clinton administration to the danger of being perceived as too close to the Haitian dictatorship. While the military rules of engagement for U.S. troops were not changed, the priorities of the intervention force were. Protection of Haitians immediately went to the top of the list, lessening one potential threat to the popularity of the U.S. troops.

Enthusiastic welcomes

Almost everywhere they go, the intervention forces are being welcomed more as liberators than occupiers.

That, of course, could change if the relationship between them and the ordinary people sours, but, for now, they are the subjects of enthusiastic curiosity rather than any open animosity.

Even had the United States launched a full-scale invasion, only limited opposition was expected. The planned invasion was designed as a conspicuous display of totally overwhelming force, and most Haitian soldiers were expected to shed their uniforms and disappear into the crowds.

Certainly one of those would have been Sgt. Francois Saint-vil, 41, an 18-year army veteran, the father of two, who earns $50 a month at the military academy.

"What should I do?" he asked. "I have only a .38 pistol. I have an M-16 or whatever. What would I have done if there had been an invasion? I would have stayed at home. And so would most of my

colleagues."

Weapons not deployed

If there was ever any real threat of a serious fight, it came from the Haitian army's elite heavy armored company at Fort D'Application, in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince. That threat was ended when U.S. special operations forces peacefully took control of the camp Wednesday and 24 hours later destroyed the personnel carriers, howitzers, anti-tank guns, mortars and recoilless rifles that the unit maintained.

To the amazement of the troops of the 3rd Special Forces Group, who first entered the camp, almost none of the heavy armor, including five Cadillac-made VF-150 armored vehicles, was deployed, although Haiti was under imminent threat of invasion.

Only a few 50 mm anti-aircraft guns around the camp's perimeter were ready to defend Haiti's major military installation, which would have been a prime target for the invasion force.

"They had it all stacked under one roof," said Chief Warrant Officer Peter Riopel of North Carolina, who helped destroy the weapons. "It was old, mostly World War II, but some World War I. None of it had been fired for a long time. I wouldn't have liked to fire any of it myself.

"Some of this stuff had 1909 stamped on it," he said. "The only other time I've seen weapons like it was in the 82nd Airborne museum."

Hard part remains

But if the initial military intervention has been a success, the hard part has yet to come -- the return of democracy in the form of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He is due to arrive once the generals depart from power -- but not from the country -- when a zTC law giving them amnesty is passed, or by Oct. 15 at the latest. That, not coincidentally, is the date when General Cedras' term as army commander runs out anyway.

There are two obvious dangers here:

One is an eruption of popular emotion in support of the populist priest with the risk of bloody street vengeance against the agents of terror in the army, police and militia.

The other is the projection of Father Aristide as a puppet of the United States if he is escorted into town by U.S. forces and given their protection.

There can be no doubt that he will need the tightest of security, given the bitter resentment among the powerful military and social elite here who have benefited from dictatorship in one form or another for most of this century.

Potential for violence

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