Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 7 News List

US soldiers in Haiti face anger and resentment

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE?Unlike in 1994, when the US was asked by Haitians to restore order, troops are confronted daily by hostile and rebellious street gangs


Six weeks into a mission to stabilize Haiti, American troops have confiscated fewer than 150 weapons among the thousands held by rival factions. In not much more than six weeks, the US soldiers will give way to a UN force -- and the Americans are counting the days.

US troops are picking up trash, patrolling streets and continuing searches for weapons. It's the second such peacekeeping mission for the Americans in a decade, and many feel they are hampered by their 90-day mandate and hostility that contrasts sharply with the joyous welcome they got in 1994.

"I don't think three months is going to change much," said US Marine Staff Sergeant John Schultz, 34, of Hammond, Indiana.

Still, he finds Haiti a respite from Iraq: "I've been there twice, and each time I hope will be the last."

Haiti's crisis couldn't come at a worse time for US President George W. Bush's administration, which is attempting to fill a power vacuum created by Jean-Bertrand Aristide's departure while coping with mounting casualties in Iraq -- all during an election year.

On a one-day visit this week, US Secretary of State Colin Powell pledged support but made no long-term promises. He said the administration does not plan on spending more than the US$55 million earmarked for Haiti -- about US$20 million less than last year and a fraction of the US$235 billion that flowed months after the last intervention.

Less money means less chances of getting guns off the street, though everyone agrees that is the only way to secure the Caribbean country of 8 million people.

Yet there is no buyback program to entice Haitians to give up weapons and street gangs both for and against Aristide remain armed, along with motley groups of rebels.

A multinational force of 3,600 soldiers and marines -- more than half American, the rest Canadian, Chilean and French -- patrol the streets, clear garbage piles high enough to hide a sniper and secure key installations such as the airport and presidential National Palace.

The primary goal is to bring order ahead of the arrival of a UN force scheduled to take over in June. Brazil will lead the force and plans to send about 1,500 army, navy and air force troops. Other Latin American countries such as Peru, Chile and Argentina indicated they could contribute troops to the peacekeeping mission, expected to last six months.

The Americans arrived as Aristide supporters bewildered by his departure set up flaming roadblocks where they robbed motorists and killed some, looted businesses and warehouses, including one containing US food aid, and both sides in the conflict were carrying out reprisal killings.

While a semblance of order has been restored to the main cities, many provincial towns controlled by rival gangs or rebels sporadically erupt in violence.

Despite the brevity of their mission, the US troops have had their resolve tested. Early in the deployment, troops shot and killed six Haitians they said either fired on them or tried to run roadblocks. A handful of others were injured in gun battles.

Haitians accused the Americans of being trigger-happy and noted French troops have not once been fired at or used their firearms. US officers responded that the Americans patrol the most dangerous areas, the sprawling slums that are strongholds of Aristide supporters. In addition, the French speak a language close to Haiti's Creole.

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