US Guards set for crime drive

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THE MAYOR of Washington DC, Sharon Pratt Kelly, will formally ask President Bill Clinton next week for permission to call out the National Guard, if necessary, to help tackle the renewed crime wave in the American capital, whose murder rate is already the highest of any big city in the country.

In a first reaction yesterday Mr Clinton said he was 'very sympathetic' to Ms Kelly's request, and had asked the Justice Department to examine the legality of such a move and its practical consequences. But, he warned, a call-out of the Guard - a volunteer force roughly the equivalent of Britain's Territorial Army - could cause 'disruption to the normal work-lives of a lot of people' and set a precedent extending beyond Washington.

In effect, Mayor Kelly is requesting a power already available to ordinary state governors across the country. But Washington, which belongs to no state but is not a state itself, is a special case. Such a move would now have to be approved by the federal government and Congress, which has ultimate authority for Washington's affairs. Moreover, the Guard is usually called out only to deal with specific disturbances, such as massive urban unrest or a prison riot.

But demands for the Guard to be deployed here have multiplied in with the violence rife on Washington's streets. Shooting incidents now run at 1,500 a year, among a population of around 600,000. This year's murder total is on course to match, or even exceed, the previous record of 482 in 1991 - representing a murder rate of 80 per 100,000 inhabitants.

The bulk of the carnage is linked to drug dealing and turf wars between armed gangs. But recent cases, notably a gunman running amok at a public swimming pool and a schoolyard shooting last month in which a 4-year-old girl died, have drawn unprecedented outrage.

At present, two dozen National Guardsmen reinforce police and citizens' patrols. Ms Kelly's plan, to be unveiled next week in an anti-crime initiative, would see a big increase to supplement a police force strained by Washington's financial problems. Public services are being pruned to bridge a dollars 150m (pounds 100m) deficit in its dollars 4.3bn annual budget.