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CRISIS IN THE CARIBBEAN : U.S. Troops to Begin Disarming Haitian Militia, Senator Says : Military: Seizure of weapons is risky but necessary, congressman reports after visiting the island nation.


WASHINGTON — U.S. troops will themselves begin disarming the Haitian attaches who have attacked pro-democracy demonstrators if Haiti's police and military do not, a senior senator said Sunday after returning with the first congressional delegation to visit the Caribbean nation since U.S. forces intervened there.

The difficult and potentially dangerous operation, in which U.S. troops could be forced to search out not only weapons caches but small arms held by individuals, could put the soldiers into direct confrontation with the shadowy civilian militia allied with the Haitian police and military.

"Our forces there are going to take steps in the coming days to disarm this crowd, and they'd like to do it working with the Haitian armed forces," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said. "But . . . if that doesn't work out, they're going to disarm them one way or the other."

The U.S. military has avoided that task because of its great difficulty and the possibility of sustaining casualties. Before the U.S. intervention, rifles, hand grenades and other portable weapons were distributed by the Haitian regime among paramilitary forces numbering more than 1,000 and spread throughout the country.

In the U.S. military intervention in Somalia, the lack of a successful disarmament effort played a key role in the violence and chaos that later enveloped the mission.

Officials directing the Haiti operation are realizing that eventual success there now requires that disarmament somehow be accomplished, even at considerable risk, sources say.

Dodd, interviewed on the CBS News program "Face the Nation," said he believes U.S. soldiers will be killed or wounded before the mission, which began two weeks ago and which the Senate team said could last a year, is completed.

Because the congressional delegation is the first official group outside the Clinton Administration to visit Haiti for an in-depth assessment since the U.S. troops landed, its findings are awaited with interest by both critics and supporters of the military operation. Congress is expected to vote this week whether to give the Administration a specific date for ending the U.S. deployment.

Reflecting the divided opinion in Congress over the military action, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) warned that, in venturing into disarming the population, "the Clinton Administration is now on the edge of a disaster. . . . We are right now drifting steadily into a quicksand of misery."

Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), who joined Dodd on the weekend visit to Haiti, said in a telephone interview that "no one knows who's calling the shots" among Haitian leaders in the transition leading to the return of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, "and that's not comforting."

He said he came away concerned that "the end game"--how to wrap up the U.S. military operation and put in place the conditions for democracy--was unclear.

Administration officials stressed that other nations' participation in the effort will now begin growing. Samuel Berger, the White House deputy national security adviser, said on CNN's "Late Edition" that the first members of an international police force of 2,000 from Caribbean nations will begin arriving in Haiti today. Officials said the U.S. force now numbers more than 20,000.

The goal is that eventually most of the U.S. troops can be replaced by a U.N. mission to which 24 nations will contribute soldiers and police officers.

While U.S. officials said the United States will become more aggressive in disarming the plainclothes militia in Haiti, it remained unclear how far they will go in this effort and whether it will be far enough to provide security for a stable transition.

U.S. soldiers can seize caches of weapons and take weapons from individuals who they see carrying them. But house-to-house searches would be almost out of the question in the crowded streets and shanties that make up much of the attaches' territory.

Dodd said he believes that the attaches would diminish as a threat if the United States manages to capture their key leaders.

"There's a real structure here, and if you can get the top people and isolate them, capture them and hold them, this structure falls apart," he said. "The rest of this crowd will sort of disappear, and the threat of the paramilitary groups will dissipate."

But Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the visiting congressional delegation, cast a skeptical eye on the chances for easy success.

"For the moment, we are not disarming the attaches unless we see them in a violent situation," he said. "It will be very difficult to change the attaches. "

Pell said it is imperative to "make sure we have a vibrant police force built up by Americans." Maybe then the attaches "will fade away," he said.

One central question hanging over the Haiti operation, and still unanswered, is whether Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, the military leader, will leave the country after he leaves office. In meetings with the congressional delegation, he again committed himself to stepping down by Oct. 15, but he left it unclear whether he will try to remain in Haiti after Aristide is returned to office under the accord worked out two weeks ago by former President Jimmy Carter.

The Senate delegation, according to Pell, made clear its view--albeit with the rest of the Haitian high command in the room--that the general should leave Haiti. But, Pell said, "he made no commitment to do that."

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