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Marines to aid Haitian earthquake relief. But who's in command?

Some 5,700 US marines and soldiers are expected to join Haitian earthquake relief efforts this weekend. The UN says its peacekeeping force should be in command. The US says no.

By Staff writer / January 14, 2010

MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti) peacekeepers work to find survivors at the collapsed UN headquarters in Port-au-Prince, Wednesday.

UN Photo Logan Abassi / Reuters

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Washington

The marines are about to hit the shores of Port-au-Prince – an arrival that would almost certainly send shivers up spines anywhere else in Latin America.

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But amid the Haitian earthquake relief effort – in a country that has no military of its own and has hosted an international peacekeeping force since 2004 – the arrival is unlikely to cause many ripples among locals.

Yet the dispatch of some 2,200 marines – as well as 3,500 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division – is raising some command and assignment questions.

When the troops arrive, perhaps this weekend, who will be in charge, given that the Haitian government is almost disintegrated and the 9,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH, is dealing with its own losses?

Will the 5,500 US military personnel be part of an international, or an American, security effort?

Who's the boss?

“It’s fully desirable that all these forces should be coordinated with the UN MINUSTAH commander there,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday.

US officials, on the other hand, say that while the US may “coordinate” with the peacekeeping operation’s leadership, US troops will be under American command.

“We’ll be under US command supporting a UN mission on behalf of the Haitian government and the Haitian people,” said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, when asked Thursday to clarify the command structure for what is expected to be a three-month deployment of US forces.

Learning from the tsunami

The command question may cause some initial confusion, but it is likely to be quickly ironed out – especially given the recent experience the US has in dispatching the military to disaster zones, say US security and international relief experts.

“We sent 8,000 marines to Indonesia after the tsunami, and that intervention stands out as one of the best examples of use of the US military in a disaster,” says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense who is now an analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

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