Defense officials said Friday that no deployment orders have been issued, but if the call is made, the Amphibious Ready Group led by the helicopter carrier USS Saipan, can travel from Norfolk, Va. to the impoverished Caribbean nation in two days.
A Navy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. military also could send the three ships without large numbers of Marines for maritime interdiction or to support U.S. Coast Guard ships trying to prevent a mass exodus of Haitians to the United States, Reuters reported.
About 50 Marines were sent to Haiti Feb. 23 to guard the U.S. Embassy in the capital Port-au-Prince.
For days, heavily armed rebel groups have threatened to attack Port-au-Prince if Aristide does not step down. Aristide supporters and other residents have erected flaming barricades on streets leading into the capital.
Aristide has faced increasing political opposition since his Lavalas Party gained seats in what many considered to be flawed legislative elections in 2000. The demonstrations turned violent Feb. 5, when rebels began taking over towns in the North, clashing with militant Aristide supporters. About 70 people have died in recent weeks.
Aristide has vowed to stay in office until his term expires in February 2006.
France has voiced support for Aristide’s early departure, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Thursday questioned the embattled president’s ability to govern effectively during his remaining two years in office.
“Whether or not [Aristide] is able to effectively continue as president is something he will have to examine carefully, in the interests of the Haitian people,” Powell said.
If Aristide resigns, the constitutional successor would be Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre. In the period before elections are held, a broad-based government would be formed consistent with a peace proposal set forth a month ago by the Caribbean Community, a U.S. official told the Associated Press.
President Bush declined to comment Friday on whether he would support an Aristide resignation. “We’re interested in achieving a political settlement,” he said.
Defense Department officials have not been enthusiastic about launching a military mission to Haiti. The U.S. military is stretched thin by operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, although officials have said that would not prevent them from being able to mount a robust Haiti operation if necessary, Reuters reported.
During the Clinton administration, the United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore Aristide to power after a coup during his first term.
Since then, Powell said, “corruption came into play, inefficiency came into play, cronyism came into play and the whole political tapestry of the country came apart.”
The United States and its other regional allies had sent a delegation to the island nation to negotiate a government-sharing agreement with Aristide and nonviolent opposition groups. Aristide agreed to the new arrangement, but opposition leaders refused to accept a deal that did not require the president to resign.
Some U.S. lawmakers have criticized the administration’s handling of Haiti. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said Friday, “One way or another, the United States is going to have to get involved to resolve this mess.
“We can do it sooner — and minimize the loss of life and property destruction — or we can do it later when we will be sending body bags to dispose of the dead and Coast Guard cutters to pick up Haitians at sea,” he said, according to the AP.
The United States has intercepted boats with about 531 Haitians in the Windward Pass, a stretch of ocean northwest of Haiti. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said they were taken back to Haiti to be repatriated.