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U.S. military scaling back presence in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - The biggest U.S. military surge since Iraq and Afghanistan is scaling back a month after the troops arrived in haste to aid victims of Haiti's catastrophic quake.

Great gray ships have been leaving behind Haiti's battered shores as thousands of American troops packed up their tents. The mission, however, is far from over.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the United States will be in Haiti for the long haul, although troop strength is down to 13,000 from a Feb. 1 peak of 20,000. Those who remain will accompany Haitians in an arduous struggle toward recovery.

Within a broad and international relief effort, U.S. forces have provided some of the most visible support to a nation whose government and infrastructure were nearly wiped out in less than a minute on Jan. 12.

They have shored up the capital's damaged port to operate at several times its pre-quake tonnage, while acting as a security and logistics mainstay for UN food distributions. Military choppers have delivered life-sustaining relief to isolated villages.

The flow of injured quake victims to the USNS Comfort hospital ship has eased, but the need for medical facilities remains overwhelming.

The Haiti aid operation, costing the Pentagon $234 million and counting, has added a new strain to an already overtaxed military. About seven in 10 of the Cite-Soleil modern-day MASH unit's members are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and many are scheduled to return there.

Meanwhile, relatives of a group of jailed U.S. missionaries thought a man who volunteered legal assistance - but who may be wanted for human trafficking in El Salvador - was a Good Samaritan, a family member said. Jorge Puello wasn't known to the group before their arrest for trying to take 33 children out of Haiti, and members failed to check his background, a relative said.

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