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Cedras fights war of nerves

AS A former instructor in psychological warfare at the military academy in Port-au- Prince, Haiti's army commander, General Raoul Cedras, believes he is winning the war of nerves with President Clinton. Despite vigorous sabre-rattling by Washington, he thinks it unlikely that the US will invade.

His confidence, say his advisers, is rooted in the belief that there are deep divisions within the US political establishment over the advisability of invading Haiti at all.

General Cedras also believes the mood in the US is against intervention. The polls show a majority oppose an invasion. If intervention leads to American casualties or suffers any setback, it will damage President Clinton. And if it succeeds, it would do him little good.

General Cedras may well be right. Diplomats say US invasion plans are postponed until September. President Clinton studiously tried to avoid mentioning Haiti when he was in Miami this week. He does not want to be diverted from the congressional battle over health care.

William Gray, who co-ordinates Haiti policy for President Clinton, confirms that military action is not imminent. Referring to Haiti's effective rulers - General Cedras, his chief-of-staff, General Philippe Biamby, and the Port-au-Prince police chief, Colonel Michel Francois - Mr Gray said yesterday: 'The three stooges will be out of power by October.'

Assembling a multi-national force to replace the invasion units is delaying American action. Diplomats say the financing, mandate and control of this force have yet to be agreed. Who ultimately controls it will determine the degree to which Haiti will be an international protectorate after intervention.

Although the US is adamant it will not negotiate with General Cedras, Washington is reluctant to send in troops.

American action could be precipitated by a renewed exodus of Haitian boat people. It is this outflow which has determined the degree of American interest in the Haiti crisis over the past three years.

US policy is simple enough. A steadily tightening embargo backed by 14 naval vessels and 3,000 Marines offshore, would force General Cedras to leave power voluntarily. The problem is that the threat carries no conviction. The Haitian military still remembers how the US ship Harlan County turned around last year in the face of a few pro-government thugs demonstrating on the Port- au-Prince dockside.

Nor is there any sign of dissension within the army and police. At one time, Colonel Francois was publicly distancing himself from General Cedras, but he now sounds chastened. Ordinary soldiers only make dollars 70 ( pounds 45.50) a month but they have a job in a country where four out of five are unemployed. They are also bound by the fear of being lynched if the military loses power.

There is no sign of the government losing control: it maintains its authority not by troops but by terror. In the slum of Cite Soleil in the capital this week, several severed heads, presumably of opponents of the regime, were discovered.

General Cedras has faced down President Clinton so often since he took office that he may now be too confident. Washington has made its reluctance to invade so clear that its threats to do so carry little weight. For all its reservations, however, the Clinton Administration cannot afford to let General Cedras win. 'The end of the day is approaching,' said Strobe Talbott, a Deputy Secretary of State Talbott last weekend.

(Photograph omitted)