PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — THE reception Haitians have extended to the 20,000 US troops deployed here over the last two weeks has gone from cautious optimism to overt jubilation and now - in response to a run of violence in the capital this weekend - to suspicious reserve.
Since Thursday, nearly a dozen Haitians have died and more than 60 been injured by violent attacks on demonstrators supporting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. On some occasions, United States troops have intervened, but their absence in other situations has raised questions about what their role in Haiti is or should be.
Their stated mission is to secure a stable environment for the peaceful return of exiled President Aristide. The US's terms of engagement - revised after a Haitian was beaten to death in the streets on Sept. 20 as US soldiers stood by - permits US troops to use deadly force if, among other things, they need to ``defend themselves and all members of the multinational force or protect Haitians and third-country nationals.''
But US troops have resisted assuming the role of police during either outbreaks of violence at demonstrations or widespread warehouse looting, both of which have become regular occurrences here. At the same time, even US officials admit it is naive to expect the Haitian police, poorly trained and in league with the military, to handle these situations.
When a grenade exploded in a crowd of joyous pro-democracy supporters last Thursday, Haitian police were absent, but US troops moved in right away to help the wounded and quell the chaos. In anticipation of Friday's planned demonstrations on the third anniversary of the military coup that sent Aristide into exile, US officials announced that there would be sufficient security for the thousands expected to march. US armored tanks dotted the city while helicopters flew at low distances overhead.
But US troops deliberately avoided the headquarters of FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti), the paramilitary organization identified as perpetrators of much of the violence that has racked Haiti over the last year, explaining that Haiti's police would be responsible for patrolling that area.
The US troops remained a few blocks away but well within hearing range of the shots fired, as supporters of FRAPH attacked Aristide demonstrators with rocks, clubs spiked with nails, and guns.
``It is an outrage,'' said one foreign diplomat, rage quivering in her voice. ``What kind of game are the Americans playing if with all their equipment, all their manpower, they are given orders that don't correspond to the security they are supposed to provide?''
``Our mission was, and still is, not to serve as a police force,'' Army spokesman Col. Barry Willey responded. ``That is the function of the Haitian police.''
A yawning void
Most here agree that unless the vacuum in police control is assumed by the US, FRAPH and its allies will continue to terrorize the population.
``Allowing FRAPH to get away with what they have over the last few days just encourages them,'' one human-rights monitor says. ``The United States is clearly not acting in the best interest of the Haitian people if these are the conditions under which people have to demonstrate.''
Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul, who returned to City Hall Thursday for the first time since the coup under the protection of US troops, said: ``We can't have a peaceful transition until we have the measures to do so. And we can't do that until we disarm FRAPH.''
FRAPH leader Emmanuel Constant denies that his members are either violent or armed. Mr. Constant is quick to defend FRAPH against accusations that it is a paramilitary organization, despite the fact that US officials and United Nations human-rights monitors have labeled it as such.
``I don't carry arms, nor do any of my members,'' he says, explaining that those who came out of FRAPH headquarters and fired on demonstrators Friday were FRAPH friends who came to offer their support in case of trouble. ``It's our constitutional right, however, if we want to have [a gun],'' he said.
The US acknowledges the importance of disarmament, but the program for collecting guns is not working as well as hoped. A week-old arms buy-back program has yielded only 287 weapons.
Aristide supporters say it would not be difficult to gather in all the arms. ``If they gave us the chance, we could find all the weapons and hand them over to the blan,'' says a demonstrator, using the Creole for ``white,'' the local term for US troops. ``We don't want revenge, we just want the weapons off the streets.''
Many US soldiers who have seen the violence also welcome peaceful disarmament. They also say they sense a new relationship forming between the US forces and the Haitian population.
``Already I feel people are acting different,'' says a US Army specialist, who heard but did not see some of the weekend violence. ``I'm afraid the curiosity has worn off, and they are getting tired of us. If the violence continues, they'll start asking what exactly are we doing here?''