PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, FEB. 8 -- A year ago, with Haiti in the grip of its fourth military-controlled government in as many years, it would have been unthinkable for the army to allow a leftist civilian president to take power. To imagine that the military would stand by as that president publicly purged most of the army's general staff would have seemed a flight into fantasy.

Yet in his inaugural address Thursday, Haiti's new leftist civilian president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, did just that. Almost no one expects the army to do anything but comply.

In a further assertion of authority, Aristide's new government ordered at least 164 people -- including outgoing president Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, her entire cabinet and top government and electoral officials -- not to leave the country for one month.

Trouillot was included in a list of 28 people accused of complicity in a failed coup attempt last month, although most diplomats say the accusation is false. The other detentions were described as necessary until a routine administrative review by government auditors is performed.

But some Haitian and foreign observers expressed concern that Aristide, who has vowed to seek justice for public officials accused of corruption and other crimes, might instead embark on a search for scapegoats.

"I'd hate to see a witch hunt," said one envoy. "Having stressed love and reconciliation, for his first act of government to be issuing this list may send a {conflicting} political signal."

In a mesmerizing speech Thursday that secured his position as the nation's top entertainer as well as its most beloved political leader, Aristide moved to retire six of the army's eight generals and a prominent colonel.

With tens of thousands of Haitians cheering wildly in front of the national palace, the announcement was a stunning display of raw popular power. No one in Haiti, not even the army, could realistically hope to defy the street mobs that Aristide seems to command so effortlessly.

But the move also marked a remarkable transformation by the army since last March, when the nation's last military dictator fled into exile. Since then, under Lt. Gen. Herard Abraham, the 7,000-strong army has not only permitted a democratic transition, but guaranteed it.

The army has provided bodyguards for Aristide, who had been the target of several assassination attempts before the campaign. It provided security during the campaign, which was marred by just one major violent incident. And after initial hesitation, it smothered a coup attempt last month by holdovers from the old Duvalier family dictatorship.

Various explanations have been offered for the army's shift. Abraham, 50, a polished officer who has served as foreign minister, is given considerable credit by many Haitians.

There are signs too that a new generation of generally more professional and reform-minded colonels in their early forties has broken with the older generation of generals that Aristide moved against this week. The army may simply have grown tired of its repeated failures to form a popular government, of mounting international pressure for civilian democracy and of constant vilification by its countrymen.

The new president acknowledged the army's critical role even as he asserted his authority over it, proclaiming a "marriage of love between the Haitian army and the Haitian people."

He expressed sympathy with the plight of enlisted men whose salaries are so low they can barely afford a roof over their heads. And he promised that the army would receive his government's highest respect.

"It was a very, very astute political move," said a diplomat. "He recognized his need to establish his authority quickly. . . . But he also reassured them. They weren't sure that Aristide wasn't out to destroy the army, and they realized they could not prevent that if he wanted it."

Today, in a symbolic act that complemented Thursday's show of political muscle, Aristide visited Fort Dimanche, the army-run prison where thousands of Haitians were shot, tortured and starved to death during much of the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship.

Tens of thousands of Haitians mobbed the prison, nearly crushing Aristide when he arrived. They chanted, "Watch out! Watch out!" -- a traditional warning of the threat of Ton-tons Macoutes, the Duvaliers' vicious militia.

The prison is to be turned into a museum, displaying pictures of some of those who died there at the hands of the army. Many people arrived at the prison today bearing photos of relatives who went there, never to return.

Jean-Claude Bajeux, a political activist whose mother, two brothers and two sisters died in Fort Dimanche in 1964, made his first visit. He called it "an extermination camp."

Bobby Duval, a 37-year-old human rights worker, also was there, but in his case not for the first time. He spent 12 months at Fort Dimanche in 1976-77 before finally being freed because of lobbying by the Carter administration.

Then-U.N. ambassador Andrew Young delivered a letter with names of 13 political prisoners, including Duval's. Ten of those on the list already were dead when the letter was delivered. Duval, who weighed 90 pounds, was barely alive.

"This was a bastion of the military," he said in an interview. "Now the population isn't afraid {of the army} anymore. This whole symbol has just crumbled."