LAST week's arrival of 7,000 United States troops, diverted en route home from the Persian Gulf, has boosted the relief efforts and sagging confidence of the two-month old government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. But the American presence also unleashed strong criticism in this politically volatile country, which remains touchy over its world image as a troubled nation.
``When Indian and Pakistani helicopters with military personnel come in to help, then nobody protests,'' says a Bangladeshi relief official angry about the marches. ``But when the Americans come in, it is all protest. Why?''
Even as Bangladesh and American military personnel struggled to stave off starvation and disease, demonstrators paraded in the capital, Dhaka, with banners reading ``Throw out the Americans'' and ``Relief not US Marines.''
Although some opposition forces ranted against the presence of US Marines, hundreds of grateful coastal dwellers lined up to receive help. In Harasia complex on Sandwip Island, residents spontaneously lined up when US helicopters landed.
Hurricanes, tidal waves, monsoon storms, and floods have battered Bangladesh for the past three weeks.
On April 29, a cyclone and tidal wave left an estimated 139,000 people dead, 10 million others homeless, and devastated 115 square miles of coastline in the south. Swirling floods in the north have killed 230 people, marooning thousands in the hilly tea belt of Sylhet. Disease, compounded by malnutrition, have killed tens of thousands, officials say.
``It is like a battle zone with planes flying in and out constantly,'' says Osman Ghani Monsur, a local resident. ``This time the battle is against starvation, disease, and exposure.''
``The calamities were too fast and too intense to be natural,'' adds Hasna Moudud, the coastal development chief and a former Parliament member.
Mr. Moudud says he believes the Gulf war and the burning oil fields of Kuwait have changed the global weather patterns to the detriment of Bangladesh.
Prime Minister Zia, who took power only two weeks before the first cyclone hit, has been constantly on the move visiting disaster areas to console survivors. But with huge human losses and billions of dollars in damage to the country's harbor and export-processing zone, the prime minister sent an appeal to the international community for humanitarian help.
France has promised to help in revitalizing the storm-battered telecommunications links. Japan, China, Thailand, and Indonesia brought helicopters for use in the relief operation.
Bread factories in the capital have been requisitioned by the government for accelerated production to feed hungry survivors, while city people eat homemade bread. Flattened rice, fresh water, molasses, and bread have been airborne to isolated islands.
US Maj. Gen. Henry Stackpole, who commands an eight-ship task force, says American forces in the first six days of the relief operation ferried 1,100 tons of supplies in 421 sorties by helicopter and C-130 cargo aircraft under a joint US-Bangladesh coordinated effort. He says he expects his men to leave for home within a month.
``The US task force helicopters lifted 300 tons of relief materials in one day, as against the entire effort by the government and other friendly countries in the first two weeks,'' says a senior Bangladeshi official.
Those efforts were not, however, entirely appreciated.
``Knowing full well that the Americans always wanted a naval base in our coastal zones, why did Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia allow the Americans to come in?'' asks an official of the left-wing National Socialist Party.