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U.S. military officials in Panama have been saying since before that county's national elections in May that Manuel Noriega had to be removed from power - and that direct U.S. military involvement was a probability.

Two weeks before that election, the U.S. officials predicted a "gross ripoff" by Noriega, either through vote buying, postponement, cancellation or nullification of the election.Their predictions appear to have been correct. Opposition leader Guil-lermo Endara won the May 7 election but was kept from taking office while Noriega continued to rule. En-dara finally was sworn in Wednesday.

While State Department diplomats were attempting to negotiate a democratic government and better relations between Panama and the United States, the U.S. military leaders were pessimistic about their chances.

When President Bush flew 12,00 troops into Panama for the invasion, he was adding to a standing force there of 12,000 American troops, according to the U.S. Southern Command.

Most references to the U.S. military presence in Panama are tied to this country's role in defending and operating the Panama Canal. But Panama is headquarters of the Southern Command, which makes Panama a hub for all U.S. military activity in Latin America.

In a structure similar to the Pentagon's joint chiefs, SOUTHCOM is headed by a four-star general who is surrounded by top officers from each service branch. Many of the officers have Latin American backgrounds; many are experts in Soviet affairs.

The 12,000 soldiers and their dependents are stationed at a half-dozen installations across Panama from Fort Sherman on the Atlantic end of the canal to Howard Air Force Base and the Southern Command's headquarters at Quarry Heights on the Pacific side.

Not all Noriega-related scenarios have been played out in Panama. While the treaty that would turn the canal over to Panama on Jan. 1, 2000, is still intact, military officials acknowledged conditions could arise that could scrub the transfer. The absence of a democratic government in Panama tops the list of reasons the transfer would be aborted.

The government that controls the canal also controls sea traffic that traverses the Americas from two oceans.

Military officials say Noriega has successfully interfered with the canal's operations without using visible military force. Several Army officers said civilian buses have mysteriously become stalled on key bridges across the canal, fouling canal operations simply by keeping operators from their jobs.

The scenarios become dramatic in the event of sabotage or a military confrontation on the canal itself: one ship sunk in or near one of the canal's locks would render the canal useless and block seagoing traffic in two oceans.

Coffee beans, bananas, beef and other agricultural exports could be left to rot in South American harbors if shippers knew the goods couldn't traverse the canal. The result of such an interruption would be seen on both the consuming and exporting ends of the shipping chain.

Under current operating conditions on the canal, any ship, military or civilian, is free to pass through the canal's locks as long as the average $27,000 passage fee is paid - in U.S. currency and in advance - and as long as the ship's captain surrenders control of his vessel to a canal pilot while the ship makes the nine-hour trek from ocean to ocean. (Only 6 percent of the world's oceangoing vessels are too large to fit through the canal - oil supertankers and aircraft carriers built after World War II.)

The United States has an enormous financial interest in the canal. Only two-thirds of the $3 billion spent building the canal in 1903 and maintaining it since has been recovered.