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DIFFICULT U.S. ROLE IN HAITI ALREADY RUNS INTO PITFALLS

Frustrated American soldiers in Haiti had to stand and watch this week while police savagely beat civilians demonstrating against the still-in-power regime. The appalling incident underlined some of the pitfalls inherent in sending U.S. troops to Haiti in the first place.

The whole idea of the invasion was to oust Gen. Raoul Cedras and his military junta from power. But the agreement brokered by former President Jimmy Carter allowed Cedras to stay until Oct. 15. More ominous, it turned U.S. troops into "partners" with the thugs they had come to evict.It won't take many events like non-intervention of U.S. forces in the beating of demonstrators in Port-au-Prince this week for Haitians to come to regard the Americans as mere extensions of the Cedras regime instead of liberators. That same kind of attitude shift led to the deaths of Americans in Somalia.

The last-minute deal by Carter averted a fight, but it also opened the door to the possibility of a blanket amnesty for Cedras and company. It did not force him to leave Haiti and did not disarm the military. Instead, American forces will seek to reorganize Haiti's out-of-control army and police so they can run the country after Cedras leaves - if he ever does.

Washington clearly hopes to use the government of Cedras as a temporary bridge leading to the return of ousted Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide. While Aristide poses his own problems in some respects, he at least is a legitimate leader of Haiti.

Several things need to take place quickly if Washington hopes to clean up the mess in Haiti and avoid any more entanglement than necessary.

First, the economic embargo ought to be lifted and U.S. aid provided to ease the distressing poverty of the Haitian people.

Second, U.S. combat forces should be brought home as quickly as possible before they get too entangled in the Haitian quagmire. They should be replaced by U.N. and regional peacekeepers.

Third, Credras should not be allowed to stay in Haiti under any conditions. The possibilities for mischief-making are too great if he remains.

Fourth, Aristide should be allowed to take charge as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, all of those goals may prove difficult.

The lifting of sanctions should be the easiest and quickest step. But U.S. officials say they will not seek to remove the embargo immediately. They will wait until Cedras is out and Aristide back in power. The delay will hurt the suffering people of Haiti.

United Nations forces will require time to get involved. That won't be easy since the deal worked out by Carter is different than previous U.N. resolutions that were much tougher. Special U.N. envoy Dante Caputo abruptly resigned after what he called the Washington "unilateral" deal with Cedras.

Everything depends on Aristide accepting what the United States has done. A lengthy silence made Washington nervous, but when Aristide finally spoke this week, he did not repudiate the deal. However, he didn't endorse it, either.

Aristide is clearly bitter about the soft treatment given Cedras and the military junta. The Clinton administration failure to work more closely with Aristide, despite his stubbornness and occasional anti-American attitude, is hard to understand.

Too much is riding on Aristide to have left him standing on the sidelines like an unwelcome guest at a party. Instead, he was forced to watch on television as American officers praised the cooperation they had received from his enemy, Cedras.

That handling of an important figure in the difficult Haiti situation is a blunder by the Clinton administration that could have some damaging consequences once Aristide is back in control.

Nation-building in Haiti is going to be enormously difficult. So far, it has gotten off to a rather shaky start.