WASHINGTON – President Bush on Sunday acknowledged the constitutional successor in Haiti after the departure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide (search) and sent Marines to help quell violence on the turbulent island nation.
"It's the beginning of a new chapter in the country's history," Bush told reporters as he returned to the White House from Camp David hours after Aristide departed the Haitian capital by plane.
Bush acknowledged that Haiti now has an interim president "as per the constitution in place," but did not refer to the new leader, Supreme Court Chief Justice Boniface Alexandre (search) by name. Bush urged Haitians to reject violence and "give this break from the past a chance to work."
"The United States is prepared to help," Bush said.
The democratically elected Aristide left Haiti with help from the United States, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. He provided no further details.
When asked where Aristide went, Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice replied, "Third country." She would not elaborate.
The U.S. forces are the first phase of an interim international force to help stabilize Haiti, wracked by a deadly four-week uprising that has killed more than 100 people.
The administration planned to consult with allies about seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution that would authorize international support for a peaceful and constitutional transition of power, Boucher said.
He said other countries are prepared to join the military mission, and want to help Haitians quickly form an independent government.
"We call on all Haitians to respect this peaceful and constitutional succession," Boucher said.
Earlier Sunday, a senior administration official said after the one-time U.S. ally left Haiti that Aristide's decision was "in the best interest of the Haitian people."
Marines assembled to help repatriate Haitian migrants aboard Coast Guard ships.
Rather than send the Marines by ship, as was considered before Aristide's departure, they were expected to go by air in order to arrive more quickly, said defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The plan was to fly in as many as several hundred Marines to assist the Coast Guard at one or more Haitian ports, the officials said. Such a force, known as a special Marine Air-Ground Task Force, was standing by at Camp Lejeune, N.C., a major Marine Corps base.
The centerpiece of such a task force would be elements of a Marine infantry battalion that is always on short-notice alert at Camp Lejeune, supplemented by Marine aircraft, logistics and other transportation elements.
As a next step, the administration planned to use those Marines or a larger group of troops as part of an international security force assembled under the auspices of a regional institution called the Caribbean Community, officials said.
At a debate in New York, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards said the United States should be part of a U.N. force to secure Haiti. The North Carolina senator and other Democrats accused President Bush of neglecting the Caribbean nation as it spiraled into chaos.
"He's late, as usual," said John Kerry, the undisputed front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
With Aristide's departure, the head of Haiti's supreme court said he was taking charge. One U.S. concern, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was that the rebels who forced Aristide to flee might demand a role in the new government. The United States considers many members of these groups to be committed to violence and undeserving of any political role.
Another U.S. official said it appeared unlikely that U.S. military aircraft or personnel would be needed to evacuate Americans in Haiti.
Secretary of State Colin Powell had spoken on the telephone with the foreign ministers of Argentina, France, Jamaica and Panama. Powell conferred on Saturday with Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, which is the country most often mentioned as Aristide's destination, according to a U.S. official.
Aristide's ouster angered some members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rep. Charles Rangel, who was deeply involved in restoring Aristide's elected government to power in 1994, said the United States must shoulder much of the blame for Aristide's fall and the chaos that brought it on.
"I don't know what's going on, but we are just as much as part of this coup d'etat as the rebels, looters or anyone else," Rangel, D-N.Y., said on ABC's "This Week."
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said that in a country "where a true democracy has recently emerged after decades of autocratic rule," the elected president "has been pushed out by an administration anxious to get rid of him."