WASHINGTON - The United States increased the pressure on Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to step down yesterday, while resisting urgent calls for an international force to restore order in the strife-torn Caribbean nation.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, speaking to reporters, suggested that Aristide's continued hold on power may be at odds with the welfare of the people of Haiti and that he should consider resigning.
"Whether or not he is able to effectively continue as president is something he will have to examine," Powell said. "I hope he will examine it carefully."
Powell added that Aristide should consider "how best to serve the Haitian people at this time." As rebel forces bore down on the capital, Port-au-Prince, the United Nations Security Council announced that it would consider dispatching an international peacekeeping force to Haiti as part of a political settlement. The Organization of American States, meeting in Washington, urged the council to "take the necessary and appropriate urgent measures" to end the crisis.
Caribbean nations, led by Jamaica, demanded "direct and immediate intervention" to prevent anarchy and chaos in the hemisphere's poorest nation. A similar call was made Wednesday by members of the Congressional Black Caucus in a meeting with President Bush.
U.S. military officials said the U.S. Southern Command, based in Miami, and the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were preparing intervention options ranging from logistical support for an international force to deploying American troops. Fifty Marines were sent Monday to protect the U.S. Embassy.
But the Bush administration said it was prepared to join an international force only if a political agreement is reached between the government and the opposition.
This was a signal that the United States has no intention of using military force to protect Aristide and shore up his presidency against the rebel threat. But aware of a deteriorating situation inside Haiti, the Joint Chiefs staff held a planning session yesterday afternoon and called on the Navy to identify ships that would be available to assist an international force.
Powell told the Senate Budget Committee yesterday that a plan for Haiti needs to be agreed upon before a U.N.-sanctioned force is dispatched. "Whether it is police or gendarmerie or military or whatever, the international community stands ready to put that force together ... as part of stabilizing some political resolution of the problem," he said.
The size of such a force, and how large a role the United States would play, remained unclear yesterday, but one U.S. official said if a political solution is reached, American participation was "a given."
On Wednesday, France took the lead in calling for the international force, while making clear that Aristide should resign. Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said Aristide bore "a heavy responsibility" for the current situation.
Although U.S. officials have hinted they would welcome Aristide's departure, Powell's statement yesterday was the closest any has come to saying so publicly. Officials said American diplomats were in contact with Catholic bishops in hopes that they could influence Aristide, a former priest.
Haiti's rebel leader Guy Philippe told the Associated Press that his fighters were advancing on the capital yesterday and awaited an order to attack unless Aristide resigns.
For his part, Aristide continued to insist he will not leave office until his term expires in 2006, saying Haiti had already endured 32 coups in its history. "That's enough," he said.
Labeling the rebel forces "terrorists" and drug dealers, the Haitian president told CNN that their intimidation tactics could cause a wave of emigration to American shores, causing political problems for Bush during his re-election campaign.
The more people are killed, Aristide said, the more refugees will try to flee.
Bush warned Wednesday that any Haitians who try to escape their homeland by sea and head for the United States would be sent back.
Although U.S. officials say there are not, as yet, signs of an exodus, the Coast Guard said it has intercepted 546 Haitians at sea traveling in about a dozen small boats over the past three to four days.
Urging Aristide to quit poses a difficult political problem for the administration, which has made the spread of democracy a big part of its foreign policy - particularly in the Middle East.
The United States restored Aristide to the presidency of Haiti in 1994 after threatening to oust by force the military junta that had overthrown him two years earlier. The United States later sent 20,000 troops to stabilize and rebuild the country. But U.S. officials say Aristide's re-election in 2000 was badly flawed.
Democrats warned yesterday that Bush would face heavy criticism if the United States were to stand by and allow rebels to shoot their way into power in Haiti.
"If President Aristide is deposed by violence and extra-constitutional means, this administration must be held accountable for its failure to act decisively against a critical threat to our hemisphere," said a statement issued by Democrats on the House International Relations Committee.
Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. John Kerry called on Bush to appoint Sen. Bob Graham of Florida as special envoy to seek a political solution.
Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Democrat who leads the Black Caucus, said that a political solution does not have to include Aristide, but said "there should be an orderly process to the changing of the leadership."
Meeting with Bush at the White House Wednesday evening, the caucus pressed for the dispatch of 300 to 400 U.S. soldiers that would work with peacekeepers from other countries and the creation of a secure corridor to permit delivery of relief supplies.
"This is not just about Aristide," Cummings said in a telephone interview. "This is about the people of Haiti and a democracy less than 700 miles" from U.S. shores.
After the caucus pressed its case with the president, Bush "said he fully understands how we felt, but he may not have the same solutions," Cummings reported. He said he received a follow-up phone call yesterday from Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, to assure him that the administration was seeking a "constitutional solution."
In a separate CNN interview, Cummings said there may be no way to prevent people from fleeing Haiti unless peace is restored there. "People are going to find a way to survive. It is human nature. And so the best thing that we can do is a find a resolution so they don't want to come to the United States, so they'll feel comfortable where they are."
Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.