WASHINGTON -- As the Clinton administration struggles to find a way out of Somalia, the Pentagon and State Department are locked in a last-minute dispute over the deployment of hundreds of American military trainers and engineers to Haiti over the next two weeks, senior administration officials said.
Under a U.N.-brokered agreement reached with Haiti's military leaders last summer to restore exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power by Oct. 30, the United States promised to send troops as part of a U.N. force. American and Canadian troops are to retrain Haiti's military, while police officers from France, Canada, Madagascar, Tunisia, Algeria, and other French-speaking countries are to help create an independent police force.
But with increased violence in Haiti and after the troubled mission in Somalia, senior Pentagon officials have begun to question the wisdom of putting more American troops into a potentially dangerous, unpredictable and hostile environment.
In Haiti, for example, plainclothes gunmen aided by uniformed police officers brutally enforced a general strike today in Port-au-Prince, shooting at merchants and halting buses in the capital.
Last Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin ordered the first deployment of 600 American military engineers and military trainers to Haiti, and an advance team of 26 Americans arrived in the Haitian capital on Tuesday.
But yesterday, the Pentagon unexpectedly postponed the scheduled departure of a ship carrying 250 American troops to Haiti from Puerto Rico.
"Several administrative prerequisites which need to be accomplished before we deploy the U.N. mission in Haiti haven't been completed," said Col. Stephanie Hoehne, a Pentagon spokesman. "We expect these to be worked out soon."
But the postponement surprised senior State Department officials, who earlier had insisted that the troops would leave yesterday as scheduled. Some State Department officials said they felt that the Pentagon was throwing up unnecessary roadblocks for a mission of which the U.S. military is wary.
The troops are to arrive on Monday, and 300 more troops are to follow within two weeks. Under the international agreement to restore democracy to Haiti, the American troops are supposed to leave Haiti at the end of six months.
Other senior administration officials said last night that the ship would leave today or tomorrow.
Despite President Clinton's personal commitment to return Father Aristide to power as part of the restoration of democracy in Haiti, senior Pentagon officials have said that they are unwilling to endanger American lives for a leader they consider highly erratic and unreliable.