Haiti in turmoil

February 25, 2004

IT MAY BE Carnival in Port-au-Prince, but residents of the Haitian capital are girding for war. Rebel insurgents are vowing to bring their bloody fight to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the steps of the National Palace.

And yet opposition leaders in the capital remain firmly against a U.S.-brokered peace deal to solve the crisis, insisting that Mr. Aristide resign. But they should consider what awaits them if rebels storm Port-au-Prince and force Mr. Aristide from office. Civil war? Anarchy? Do they believe the militants - with whom they claim no association - will simply lay down their weapons once they are rid of Mr. Aristide and let the group of business leaders, students and union officials preside over the country's future? That seems as unlikely as Mr. Aristide voluntarily stepping down.

With the United States finally in the game there, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell should press forward with efforts to seek an accommodation with opposition leaders, including extracting more concessions from Mr. Aristide, who has signed onto the U.S.-backed peace deal. The opposition in the capital certainly has legitimate grievances against the Haitian president - his ineffectual leadership, allegations of corruption, the state of the impoverished nation. But refusing to accept an orderly transition of power could well leave them - and the country's 8 million people - at the mercy of former army leaders with human rights abuses in their past and loyal followers, ragtag militias and bands of looters.

Consider this chilling boast from a leader of one of the armed gangs: "There's no such thing as the former Haitian army now. We have the weapons and the expertise to take the country. Nothing can stop us." In the past two weeks, more than 70 people have died in confrontations between rebel groups and armed supporters of Mr. Aristide. What began as peaceful protests over Mr. Aristide's rule has escalated into clashes between opposition groups, Haitian police and pro-Aristide supporters.

With the arrival of insurgent forces, past grievances and debts fueled armed takeovers of Cap Haitien and Gonaives, Haiti's second- and fourth-largest cities. Haitian police, undermanned and outgunned, couldn't repel their attackers. As the violence deepened, the Bush administration, which had resisted direct involvement in the crisis, joined Caribbean and Latin American officials in seeking a peaceful resolution. But opposition leaders were not swayed by the proposal that called for new elections and the replacement of Mr. Aristide, a former priest and Haiti's first democratically elected president. Mr. Aristide has refused to leave office before his term expires in 2006.

Opposition leaders may get what they want, but a violent overthrow of the government won't be a victory worth claiming.

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