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U.N. Force Takes Over Haiti Mission

The transfer of command is largely ceremonial for now. Island leaders make it clear they want the U.S. forces to remain.

June 02, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — With a symbolic exchange of caps but no real change of authority, U.S.-led troops Tuesday handed over responsibility for the Western Hemisphere's most battered country to a U.N. force that is still pulling itself together.

The ceremonial transfer was the start of a months-long process in which troops from the United States, France, Canada and Chile will be replaced by a Brazilian-led force that is to focus more on reconstruction. The new force is expected to grow to about 8,000.

U.S. military and political leaders say the transition to U.N. control, which will culminate at the end of the month, does not signal a retreat from the task of rebuilding Haiti after a February rebellion that drove out President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Haitian leaders made clear, however, that they were eager for a continued U.S. presence.

"I will see if we can get them to stay," interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue told journalists after a brief ceremony and speeches at the Haitian Police Academy here. He said U.S. troops had shown themselves to have "a dissuasive effect" on those who continue to prowl slums and remote villages and cause violence.

Only a few dozen members of the U.N. force have arrived. And despite Tuesday's ceremony, replete with flags, a marching band and a change of khaki caps for the U.N. "blue berets," few of the 2,600 interim-force soldiers will be departing any time soon.

"Transfer of authority sounds pretty definitive, but it's a term that really implies a paper authorization," Col. Glen Sachtleben, chief of staff for the interim force, said of the ceremonial hand-over to Brazilian Gen. Augusto Heleno. "The real transfer from one command to another will take place sometime later in June, because the U.N. force would like to have as many troops on the ground to equal the number in the multinational interim force."

A few South American states have pledged 2,500 troops for what is currently described as a six-month mission. But United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said the troops will have to stay for years to ensure a genuine democratic transition.

Latortue, a former U.N. official, expressed confidence in the new contingent and suggested that its mandate be extended to the planned Feb. 7, 2006, inauguration of the next elected Haitian president. He said he hoped U.N. commanders would be willing to roll up their sleeves and work on economic development.

"In order to bring stability to Haiti, you have to go to the root of the problem, which is poverty," he said in a short address.

Hard-pressed by other commitments -- including Iraq, where some of the U.S. troops that have been in Haiti will be headed -- Washington plans to draw down its military presence here to no more than a dozen advisors, a senior diplomat said.

The U.S. military faces more demands now than a decade ago, when 20,000 troops restored Aristide to power after he was deposed, but it says the drawdown was planned from the start.

"I wouldn't say we are being run dry," Sachtleben said. "But there is certainly an influence across all regions of the world from what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. It affects all commands."

Officials with agencies such as U.S. Aid for International Development will continue to offer advice to the interim government, which will serve until elections.

"Haiti is no less important to us today than it was yesterday," U.S. Ambassador James B. Foley said, noting a recently announced $100-million aid package for recovery projects.

Haiti's foreign policy has long focused almost exclusively on Washington. Foley suggested that the more regional approach to strengthening peace and security in Haiti was a positive development.

"The United States looms larger than life in the Haitian psyche. Both for blame and for salvation, people look to us," Foley said, adding that Haiti is also "the responsibility of the hemisphere and the international community."

Some Haitian-American politicians have urged Washington to keep U.S. troops here longer to help ensure a transition to democracy.

"The presence of American troops during times of crisis provides not only logistical support, but also a sense of security," Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.) said in a letter to President Bush, describing the poverty and disarray left in the wake of the rebellion and recent flooding. "American troop presence in Haiti is needed now more than ever."

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