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Aristide's back, but law, order take time

For American troops in Haiti, the easy part _ reinstating President Jean-Bertrand Aristide _ is over.

Now under way is a far harder task: establishing law and order, the foundation of democracy, in a country with only a 50-man interim police force still in training and without a judiciary system or prisons worthy of the terms.

The U.S. troops are temporarily in charge. But their mandate is limited to keeping civil order and protecting themselves.

Off limits, they are dealing with crime and disarming the thousands of paramilitary gunmen, known as attaches, who were linked to widespread murder, torture and extortion under the military leaders who ousted Aristide in 1991.

Most of the 200 attaches turned over by Haitians to American forces have already been released, since the U.S.-led force is not empowered to hold them and Haiti does not yet have a system to try them. And though repressive violence has significantly diminished since the American occupation began on Sept. 19, law and order still seem far off.

Just last week, a gang of Haitians in the northern port city of Cap-Haitien, claiming to be deputies of the U.S.-led force, gained entry into homes and businesses, only to steal valuables. They escaped by claiming that the victims were attaches and that they were being punished.

The gang leader eventually was identified and detained by American soldiers, but U.S. officials said his final disposition is uncertain because Haiti lacks mechanisms to deal with criminals.

"Establishing law and order is one of the toughest issues we face. It's a precondition to any kind of serious economic development or political progress," said a senior U.S. official in Washington.

The Clinton administration admits that the process will take at least a year and probably longer. U.N. officials are tentatively set to take over the task in March.

The number of hard-core attaches engaged in wanton violence and murder is less than 1,000, U.S. officials say. But estimates of those involved in petty extortion, other crimes and harassment range from 20,000 to 40,000.

To pacify Haiti while minimizing risks to the troops, the United States has opted to avoid manhunts or house-to-house searches for the most notorious attaches. Instead, it is moving to find arms _ like the cache found Friday in Port-au-Prince _ and to break up the police and military organization behind the attaches, who usually got their power through bribery.

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