AT a crowded orphanage here, a small, barefoot boy holds up a cartoon-style leaflet, one of hundreds that the United States military showered over this town from an airplane early this week to announce its pending arrival.
The dollar-sized leaflets show a US soldier shaking hands with a Somali. The back, printed in the Somali language, reads: "The Marines are coming here to help the Somalis."
Baidoa, a town under the rule of the gun in the heart of the most famine-stricken area of Somalia, is key to relief efforts. From here, convoys of trucks carrying food airlifted from Mogadishu fan out to many remote villages. When looters steal the food, as they often do, rural Somalis in this region starve.
A week after landing in Somalia, the US Marines were expected to reach Baidoa Dec. 16 to curb the looting. But Somali and Western relief officials here complained that it took too long for the troops to arrive and worried aloud about the long-term impact of their presence.
The Marines are "too late," fumed Abdikadir Sheikh Mohammed, the Somali nurse in charge of the orphanage, which is run by the Irish charity Goal. People here are "tired of living at gunpoint."
At the office of World Vision, a US-based relief agency operating food programs here, relief director Dick Venegoni said that when the Marines entered Mogadishu, the capital, on Dec. 9, armed Somali gangs looting food supplies there fled upcountry. Many came here.
"We've been living in danger for months, but when those Marines got to Mogadishu, they [armed looters fleeing the capital] started attacking our compounds. That's why we're frightened," he said.
The gangs, Mr. Venegoni and other relief officials here say, robbed several agencies and threatened personnel in a rampage unusual even for this besieged town.
"They are trying to get what they can before the Marines come," Venegoni said.
"They've been looting for money, computers, generators.... They even stole a 25-kg bag of milk, chipping through a two-foot stone wall to get it." A displaced Somali at the feeding center was killed during the milk raid.
The violence forced Goal to evacuate all of its Western staff. World Vision sent out two-thirds of its foreign staff, and other agencies, such as Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and CARE, sent some of their people out to safety.
But the Somali staff and the remaining foreign personnel carried on. "Our feeding centers are running as usual," said M. K. Haji, a Kenyan-born Somali now running Goal. "CRS never stopped," said CRS administrative manager Ahmed Moulid.
"The Somali staff has done a wonderful job, with minimum supervision," said Bernard Vicary of World Vision.
By early this week, the worst looting appeared to be over - in this town - at least for now. The armed gangs have mostly fled to other Somali towns, such as Belet Uen, retreating farther as US jets screamed overhead.
But "they will come back after the troops leave," said Hussein Dahir, manager for the relief agency Red Crescent.
Few here see the arrival of the Marines as much more than a short-term response to the problems of civil conflict and famine.
In January 1991, rebels overthrew Somali dictator Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, who fled with his forces southward toward the Kenyan border. In the past two years, drought and factional fighting between Somali ethnic groups, known as clans, have led to widespread famine and starvation, as tens of thousands fled their homes seeking safety and food.
Baidoa's local people are predominantly Rahanweyn, a largely pastoral clan that was never a major armed factor in the civil war. General Siad Barre's forces reoccupied Baidoa from June to July 1991, and again from November to April 1992, looting food stocks and raping and killing people here, according to Rahanweyns living here at the time.
In April 1992, another occupying force, the United Somali Congress (USC) troops of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, overran Baidoa. Most of these forces were members of either General Aideed's Habar-Gedir clan or the related Duduble clan.
Now, as Baidoa prepared for yet another occupation, this time by the Marines, one Western relief official said he was concerned US diplomats and soldiers might further antagonize the local Rahanweyn people by paying too much attention to the USC officials who still rule this town at gunpoint.
At the Goal-supported orphanage, 15-year-old Issac Ibrahim, thin-limbed from hunger, sat on one of the blanket-covered wooden pallets that serve as beds for more than 600 children.
"When the American soldiers throw out the guns, I'll be happy," he said.
On the eve of the Marines' arrival, many looters had fled in heavily armed pickup trucks. But sporadic gunfire could be heard through the night. At least one person was shot in a market.