In the best of times, the Haitian government, long plagued by corruption and misrule, was barely functional. Now the catastrophic earthquake that struck in the capital of Port-au-Prince this week has left the government crippled and its president among the thousands of homeless.

From Washington, President Obama pledged help with long-term reconstruction in a telephone call to Haitian President Rene Preval, though Obama also said Haitians should recognize the difficulty in getting assistance to them immediately.

"It will take time to establish distribution points so that we can ensure that resources are delivered safely and effectively and in an orderly fashion," Obama told reporters after speaking with Preval. "But I want the people of Haiti to know that we will do what it takes to save lives and to help them get back on their feet."

Philip Crowley, a spokesman for the State Department, told FoxNews.com that helping the Haitian government rebuild itself is "fundamental" to the relief efforts. But he said the department is not sending any special group to oversee the reorganization.

The crisis prompted exiled former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to say Friday he was ready to return to his country -- a move that could further complicate reconstruction efforts.

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Aristide has been exiled in South Africa since being ousted in a 2004 rebellion. He was first elected president in 1990 and ousted in a military coup the following year. U.S. troops restored him to power in 1994. After stepping down, he was re-elected in 2000 but ousted again in a bloody 2004 rebellion amid charges that he broke promises to help the poor, allowed drug-fueled corruption and masterminded assaults on opponents.

Haitian protesters have periodically called for Aristide's return over the years. Now the earthquake has left a vacuum in leadership as Preval faces his own personal struggles. His private and gated home collapsed in the quake, and the presidential palace lies in ruin.

On Friday, the Haitian government granted control of its airport, the heart of the country's recovery operation, to the United States for "as long as is appropriate," a State Department spokesman said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday she is going to Haiti to assess the damage first hand. She will travel with USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah on Saturday and plans to meet with Preval and other Haitian officials.

When asked Friday how the government will be able to stand on its own and assert authority, Clinton said, "Let me just take it one day at a time here."

She lamented what the earthquake will do to efforts the Obama administration started last year to work more effectively with Haiti.

"It was certainly on track to be in my view a very positive effort," she said. But Clinton held out hope that those efforts can continue once the emergency passes.

"There's a resilience among the people of Haiti and commitment on the part of the current government that I think bodes well for being able to bring about reconstruction and recovery efforts that will be successful," she said.

"It's not easy. We know there's a long way to go. But I think if we're smart about how we choose to interact with them and if we have the right set of expectations, I think this can be done."

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that between 9,000 and 10,000 U.S. troops should be in Haiti or off its shores by Monday. And he said the total American presence could expand beyond that as U.S. military officers determine how much assistance may be needed in the days ahead.

By the end of Friday, there were to be about 1,000 U.S. troops in Haiti, Mullen said, including a couple of hundred soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., which is focused mainly on delivering water to those in need. Mullen said a full brigade from the 82nd will be there by Sunday. A brigade normally is about 3,500 soldiers.

"Within the next week, those assets will be augmented by two more small helicopter-carrying naval vessels," Mullen said.

The primary security force on the island is a United Nations peacekeeping force that was in place before the quake. It consists of about 7,000 U.N. troops and an additional 2,000 police.

Mullen said that while disaster relief is the military's first priority in Haiti, security duties could not be ruled out.

"Obviously, we're all focused on the security piece, as well," he said. "We very much hope to stay ahead of that, but recognize that there are possibilities there that we need to plan for."

Cheryl Mills, counselor to Clinton, stressed that the administration hoped to avoid getting pulled into a military security role, although she also did not rule it out.

Crowley said that in addition to the previously reported death of agency employee Victoria DeLong, there have been at least five other confirmed U.S. deaths -- all private U.S. citizens whose names have not been released publicly.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.