AS Haiti's military junta remains unmoved in the face of escalating White House threats, United States officials now believe a US-led invasion of Haiti could come within a few weeks.
In recent days, a threshold of sorts has been passed in Washington as officials speak with one voice about an inevitable restoration of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide using US troops. The point now is to prepare the US public for what could be a protracted military operation as much as to rattle the Haitian military regime.
''The level of seriousness on this matter and the potential imminence of action has increased considerably,'' said Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Resources and Requirements Ted Warner at a meeting with a small group of defense reporters Wednesday.
This does not mean the Pentagon thinks an invasion would run into stiff military opposition. On the contrary, the Haitian armed forces are widely considered among the least-competent in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.
Their air force exists only ''in a name on the side of a building,'' says one military analyst. Their armor consists of a handful of personnel carriers -- few of which run. The primary purpose of their artillery appears to be to roll down streets during ceremonial occasions.
''All indications are that the organized military capability of the Haitian armed forces is very small,'' said Mr. Warner.
But the difficulties of ''restoring'' democracy to a nation that has a highly polarized civil society and little experience with real elections daunts many officials. In Somalia, the US military ran headlong into a US strategy that substituted force for political sensitivity and creative diplomacy. Top officers don't want to go through such an experience again. In Haiti, the US will become responsible for protecting everyone. That means it will have to defend the current supporters of the junta from Aristi de supporters seeking revenge, as well as Aristide himself.
NAVIGATING the intricacies of Haitian politics will require much cultural sensitivity, especially considering that the US will be seizing control of a black-led nation with a historically deep resentment of colonialism.
''They'll have control of the surface. They'll never have control of the country. The middle and upper classes will simply close their doors,'' predicts a Washington expert who has worked with the US government in its negotiations to restore Aristide.
As a military operation, the invasion of Haiti will be somewhat less complicated than the US incursions into Panama and Grenada, say a range of US officials and outside experts.
It is likely to be a two-step engagement. In its initial phases, US special forces -- Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and perhaps some Marines -- will seize a number of key targets.
These include Haiti's international airport and a nearby military airfield -- the only two places in the country where big US military transports can land. Communications nodes, meaning radio and TV transmitter sites, will also be primary early targets.
The junta leaders are themselves likely to be hunted by special forces, if US intelligence can pinpoint their location.
The Pentagon does not want to get into a protracted hunt for junta leaders such as Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, as it did for Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama.
In addition, US military doctrine for quick actions call for ''decapitation'' of enemy forces through neutralization of leaders and methods of communication with troops.
In the second phase of the operation, the bulk of troops arriving in the initial wave, some 10,000 US light infantry, will likely be flown onto the secured airfields.
Marines already afloat in the area on the assault ship USS Wasp may enter the country simply by sailing into Port-au-Prince harbor, though an amphibious beach assault is still a possibility.
''Heavy artillery won't be required,'' says Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute, a new Washington think tank. ''The ability of the Haitian military to respond is so poor that we have to be careful we don't kill people unnecessarily.''
Then the hard part begins: restoring Haiti's tattered civil fabric. One lesson of the Somalia experience, said Warner, is that the US will need an integrated political, military, and economic strategy.
''We have looked at the thing over a substantial time horizon,'' insisted Warner.
THE post-invasion plan might well include three main thrusts: The first would involve aid and development plans to bolster Haiti's wrecked economy.
The second focus would be diplomatic attempts to bring together the business elite and downtrodden masses, a division that has continually tormented Haitian society. The third would be incentives of some sort that would convince both the junta's active and passive supporters that they have a major stake in the country's transition to democracy.
Finally, US leaders might keep Napoleon's experience in Haiti in mind.
In 1801, the French emperor dispatched a force headed by his brother-in-law to reassert French control over the island. The French triumphed over Haitian leader Franois Dominique Toussaint-L'Ouverture -- but only after a bitter struggle resulting in thousands of casualties.