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Secretary of State Warren Christopher's latest comment that the United States will set no deadline for Haiti's army leaders to get out sounds a new note on a now-familiar theme: Bare your teeth, but don't bite.

Christopher reiterated the U.S. position Tuesday during a stopover from the Mideast in Shannon, Ireland: "We are not giving them an ultimatum or setting a deadline at the present time."The United Nations, at U.S. urging, has authorized the use of force, if necessary, to overthrow Haiti's brutal army rulers and to reinstate elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted in a 1991 coup.

"It's time for them to go," President Clinton has said often.

But when? The United States has found scores of ways to get around that question, while hoping international sanctions against Haiti will succeed in forcing out the army leaders without an invasion.

An invasion "is not imminent if you measure imminence in terms of today, tomorrow, in hours and in days," William Gray, Clinton's special adviser on Haiti, said July 13. "But we're going to look at our options."

In the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince over the weekend, U.S. Ambassador William Swing belittled the army's latest assertions of defiance as "the dying gasps of a spent force."

He used the exact same expression three months earlier to describe the new army-installed government headed by President Emile Jonassaint.

"The time of negotiations is over," U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager said in mid-July, after 14 naval ships carrying nearly 3,000 Marines moved into position off Haiti. "We cannot wait a long time."

A few days later, Gray told The Associated Press, "There is no deadline" for Haiti's military leaders to get out. "We do not draw a line in the sand. We expect them to leave and leave immediately."

U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright said the ambiguity was deliberate. "We have not said what `soon' means specifically, because we want the pressure here to work," she said Monday.

Aristide has sounded the same vague note. "The day of my return is not far off," he told his countrymen in the inaugural broadcast last month of Radio Democracy, transmitted from U.S. planes flying over Haiti.

He didn't say when.

Earlier this week, Aristide said in Washington that his return would be a matter of days. A U.S. official, similarly indeterminate, said it would be more like weeks.

But no matter how vague the language about invasion timing, the army commander, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, seems to take the threat seriously - especially since the U.N. vote. He told CNN over the weekend, "It's been decided to invade . . . and we are getting ready."

The Haitian army paraded a group of new recruits, many of them teenagers and old men, in the litter-strewn park between the National Palace and army headquarters in an attempted display of strength.