As rebels gain, how to help Haiti?

US ambassador calls for help as diplomatic efforts fail and the threat of civil war looms.

As rebels vowing to depose Haiti's president move closer to their goal, US efforts to resolve the crisis in the Caribbean country through diplomatic channels appear to be increasingly beside the point. The advancing rebels have dismissed a US-brokered power-sharing plan accepted by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The US itself dispatched 50 marines to Haiti Monday to provide added security for the US Embassy and staff there.

The building storm in America's backyard has some experts saying that unless diplomatic efforts to address Haiti's long, slow deterioration bear fruit soon, military intervention may be the only remaining option. US officials and others are not publicly backing such a scenario, but the idea of a US-led international intervention force is emerging as a serious point of discussion among experts and some members of the international community.

In 1994, the US led a UN-sanctioned force of 20,000 soldiers to return the exiled Mr. Aristide to power. This time, an international force would presumably try to head off a violent civil war - and would also oversee reestablishment of some semblance of governance, which has all but disappeared from the former French colony."With the police melting into the countryside and apparatus of normal government slipping away, the situation in Haiti requires urgent military action - but that is not what the US wants to think about right now," says Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "Even if you come up with some diplomatic accord in Port-au-Prince," Haiti's capital city, "that's not at this point going to resolve Haiti's crisis."

Indeed, the diplomatic front continues to be the official US focus. The US was awaiting a response from Haiti's political opposition - expected as early as Monday afternoon - on an envisioned power-sharing arrangement that would leave Aristide in the presidency with a new prime minister from the opposition. But with the opposition indicating any solution including Aristide is a nonstarter for them, and with even some US officials quietly suggesting it is time for Aristide to go, prospects for the power-sharing plan look dim.

Rebel forces took control of Haiti's second-largest city, Cap Haitien, on Sunday, and vowed to take the capital of Port-au-Prince within two weeks.

For their part, US officials are at least publicly keeping all their eggs in the diplomatic basket. "We're not ready to send forces in. Our priority is a political settlement," says Adam Ereli, deputy State Department spokesman.

The US perspective is that Haiti is suffering from two things, the same two factors giving rise to rival armed gangs, Mr. Ereli says: a lack of security, and a lack of governmental legitimacy. And the US believes both of those problems could be addressed by a "change of government, not a change of regime."

With the US focused on Iraq as well as Afghanistan, the US military is not anxious to contemplate any additional assignments. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in response to a question on Haiti at a Feb. 10 briefing, "Needless to say, everyone's hopeful that the situation, which tends to ebb and flow down there, will stay below a certain threshold.... We have no plans to do anything." He added, "There's no intention at the present time."

But others are speaking in terms of a multinational force. In a radio interview Monday, French Foreign Minster Dominique de Villepin said France is ready to contribute to a UN-sanctioned force to restore order to the island and help reestablish a functioning government.

"We are ready to give our assistance as long as the international community is mobilized and in agreement," Mr. de Villepin said. "Unfortunately we are not yet at this stage."

Despite Aristide's vow to remain in Haiti to serve out his term - which runs until 2006 - many specialists say the island's history of deposed leaders suggests exile could once again be Aristide's fate. The danger there is that he be replaced by a disorganized opposition, or as former Clinton Haiti envoy Lawrence Pezzullo calls "the people who have the guns" - the gangs and former military. In recent commentaries, Mr. Pezzullo says that any "peaceful scenario" for a Haiti settlement involves stationing international peacekeepers on the island, either while elections or a transitional government is organized.

A growing chorus of US voices appears to be saying a peaceful solution cannot be engineered with Aristide. That view is echoing from Republican lawmakers who never did support the Clinton administration's return of Aristide to power.

Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida, who says his state fears a mass exodus from a crumbling Haiti, says, "We cannot change Haiti's plight without a peaceful change in regime. And we cannot do that without some international political intervention."

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