PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The nation's new US-backed Cabinet took office yesterday without a single member of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas Family party, setting the stage for a showdown before the government even gets to work.
Several Haitian politicians complained that the new government unfairly excluded several political groups, including Lavalas, Haiti's largest party, after Prime Minister Gerard Latortue promised it would be represented.
US Ambassador James Foley said that "Latortue chose wisely," and that Haiti could expect significant US and international aid.
"I do think that the situation will stabilize, which is remarkable given the complete breakdown . . . a virtual state of anarchy," he said.
At the National Palace, Latortue handed the Cabinet letters of appointment and then apologized to Haitians for past governments. "I feel obliged to ask you for forgiveness for all that the other governments have done," he said.
The installation ceremony came as French peacekeepers began the dangerous task of disarming slum strongholds of Aristide.
The interim government is supposed to steer this Caribbean nation, divided between enemies and supporters of Aristide, to legislative elections within eight months. Haiti has been in crisis since flawed 2000 legislative elections swept by Lavalas.
Aristide fled Feb. 29 as a three-week rebellion threatened Port-au-Prince.
Aristide's return Monday from exile in the Central African Republic to temporary asylum in Jamaica is souring relations between Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean even as it gives Aristide's followers hope.
"We're giving our guns up right now, but if Aristide doesn't come back, we'll fight with machetes," said one armed militant, Robert Mackinson.
Aristide asserts he was forced out under US and French pressure. Washington insists he resigned before the bloody insurrection led by a street gang and former army officers could engulf the capital.
Under a US-backed plan, Latortue was chosen to return home from decades in exile in Florida, and he came to Haiti last week promising to bring Lavalas into his government and to help reconcile the country.
At the ceremony, Latortue defended his choice of Cabinet members.
"This is a government of transition. It is a way of showing that it is possible to govern this country differently and to create a new relationship between the state and its people . . . This is a government that is nonpartisan, and I invite everyone to judge it by its results."
His Cabinet included lawyer Bernard Gousse as justice minister, business leader Henri Bazan as finance minister, and former general Herard Abraham as interior minister. While the 13 Cabinet members don't belong to any political party, the majority have been critical of Aristide and are considered allied with his opposition.
Politicians from both sides criticized the process, saying their candidates were rejected without explanation.
Opposition leader Evans Paul, a former Port-au-Prince mayor, said that while "the people chosen are good . . . the process is not transparent."
"It's more of a personal government of Latortue than a real government of consensus," Paul said.
"You cannot call this a government of national unity," Mischa Gaillard, of the opposition Convergence coalition, said on Radio Vision 2000.
Aristide and party leaders have lost support as corruption flourished alongside poverty, and they reacted to opposition by using police and militants to attack opponents.
Canada sent 170 more soldiers to Haiti yesterday, joining more than 2,600 US, French, and Chilean troops.
The peacekeepers launched a nationwide disarmament campaign with a small ceremony in the harborside slum of Cite Soleil, an event marked by residents' demands that Aristide return.
Still, they handed over more than 50 assault rifles, pistols, and shotguns to a small convoy of French troops accompanied by Haitian police. Two French helicopters circled overhead.
"This is the people's initiative," said Colonel Daniel LePlatois. "We're hoping that all the slums will adopt the same position."
"The incentive for us is that we're hoping Jean-Bertrand Aristide will return," said Jondek Chery, 25, as he surrendered a submachine gun. "But if not, we'd rather have [foreign troops] here than the former army."
The French presence yesterday -- open-top jeeps, no helmets -- was in marked contrast to heavily armed US patrols in downtown Belair, where Marines have traded fire with gunmen. Six Haitians have been killed and one Marine wounded in Belair.
A UN peacekeeping force is to take over in three months, and Brazil has offered 1,100 troops.
A decade ago, disarmament under 20,000 American troops included roadblocks, seizing armories, and buying arms.