CRISIS IN THE CARIBBEAN : In Contrast to Somalia, White House Is Letting Military Call Shots in Haiti : Occupation: Officials say Administration's approach does not affect merely top commanders. It means more improvising by troops on the ground.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

President Clinton is doing something in Haiti that he did not do during the U.S. intervention in Somalia: He is letting the military be the military.

U.S. officials say that in marked contrast to the Somalia venture, Washington is stepping back and leaving the military operation to its generals and admirals.

Although that may cause some nervous moments for top Clinton Administration officials, it has given the military far more latitude than it has had in previous operations not only at the top levels of command but also among squad leaders and sergeants.

That, in turn, has meant far more on-the-spot improvisation, both by senior commanders and by soldiers and Marines in the field, concede officials familiar with the Haiti operation.

Last week, for example, after the Port-au-Prince police beat a Haitian civilian to death, it was Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, the U.S. commander in Haiti, rather than Administration officials, who decided to assign U.S. military police to oversee the Haitian forces.

The White House and the Pentagon's civilian leadership essentially went along.

And this week, the military delayed the departure of a contingent of Marines until next month, to avoid giving the appearance that Washington agreed with accusations by the Haitian army chief, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, that U.S. troops had been committing "atrocities."

Military officials say the broad latitude for the generals stems from several factors:

* Unlike the U.S. venture in Somalia, the Haiti operation is entirely American-run, so U.S. commanders have not had to tailor their actions to fit the demands of U.N. officials--which had been a major constraint in Mogadishu.

* Planning for the Haiti venture was meticulous, with major units and their weapons packaged as separate components that could be interchanged and shifted as the situation required, giving field commanders added flexibility.

* Many of the U.S. troops now in Haiti--particularly the Army's 10th Mountain Division--served in Somalia and have experience with such peacekeeping operations. One lesson that the Army learned: Keep ordinary combat troops away from day-to-day policing duties.

To be sure, the wider discretion now being afforded to military commanders--combined with the rapidly changing situation in Haiti--has led to occasional confusion and a few inconsistencies in the way U.S. troops respond.

During the beating incident last week, for example, while U.S. troops in that part of Haiti were forced to do nothing more than watch, American soldiers in another part of the island nation, using the same rules of engagement, were permitted to step in and halt such excesses.

Generally speaking, however, the effort has gone fairly well.

Typical of the broad autonomy being given U.S. troops is the case of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Tony Campbell, whose contingent of MPs was assigned to "build a rapport" with the Haitian police in an effort to curb their abuses and turn them into a professional force.

Campbell's orders were so vague they were almost unmilitary. "I was pretty much told I could do anything I want to improve relations with them," he recalls. He says his commander told him: "If you guys need to use some ingenuity to bond with these people, just go and do it."

As a result, Campbell threw away the manual. On Tuesday, it was lunch: The MPs and their Haitian counterparts shared a midday meal prepared by the wife of the Haitian commander. On Wednesday, it was a volleyball game between Campbell's men and the Haitians.

And each day since, the 11-year veteran said, he has tried to "share ideas" with the Haitians that truly are foreign to a force accustomed to enforcing the orders of a dictatorship rather than maintaining order in a democracy.

"It's not to say their approach is wrong and ours is right," Campbell says, choosing his words carefully. "It's just to show that this is the way it is done in an open society where the police and army are there to serve an elected government."

But the U.S. MPs--who are assigned to serve as a buffer between the Haitian forces and the people until a U.S.-led multinational U.N. police force forms here--do, of course, have their limitations.

Officially, they are not an occupation force. They are not authorized to enforce Haitian law or arrest Haitians. And, for now, U.S. commanders have decided not to deploy joint patrols, largely to avoid painting U.S. troops as comparable to the Haitian policemen.

Short of that, Campbell and others at the front line of the Haiti operation said they were specifically urged to improvise. "I've never done . . . or seen anything like this before," he says. "It's going to be very interesting to see how it all works out."

The case-by-case approach is expected to undergo even more-stringent tests over the next two weeks, when military planners fear increased looting and violence as the deadline approaches for the transfer of power to exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Fineman reported from Port-au-Prince and Pine from Washington.

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