LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Like a veteran general going to battle, President Alberto Fujimori has marshaled his troops to fight the next big threat to his country _ the warm water mass called El Nino.

Marching through muddy ditches in boots and supervising workers building retaining walls for the expected torrential rains, Fujimori has made preparing Peru for El Nino's feared devastation his latest challenge.

El Nino is a giant warm water mass that forms off Peru's coast with varying intensity every two to seven years, altering weather patterns around the world. Its effects, which should peak in early 1998, are expected to hit Peru and Ecuador hardest.

While neighboring governments have done little more than talk about El Nino, Fujimori has crisscrossed Peru in recent months, inaugurating civil defense projects, budgeting $80 million for a storm fund and placing more than half of Peru under a state of emergency.

Television images show him personally directing bulldozers as they dredge drainage ditches or supervising the resettlement of villages away from rivers.

Critics say Fujimori, who won the respect of Peruvians for his cool head and hard hand during crises, is trying to distract Peruvians from scandals that have caused his popular support to waver and return to his favorite role as crisis manager.

Few question the need for the projects, given the destruction El Nino brought to Peru in 1982-83, when torrential rains in the north and drought in the south devastated the infrastructure and economy. But they accuse Fujimori of blatantly using the weather for his political ends.

``El Nino has demonstrated the best quality of the president: his ability to respond to emergencies and organize against threats,'' said Jaime de Althaus, deputy editor of the conservative newspaper Expreso.

But it also ``constitutes the perfect means for Fujimori to evade the country's political and institutional reality,'' Althaus said.

When he appears in public, it is almost always inaugurating El Nino-related projects or attending a military ceremony. During these appearances he avoids addressing controversial political themes.

Municipal leaders protest that in his whirlwind tours to their communities to bolster their civil defense systems, Fujimori tramples over local authorities with his autocratic leadership style.

``He personally organizes everything, directs the army and assigns resources without even respecting our formalities,'' said Jose Aguilar, mayor of the northern town of Piura, which was battered 15 years ago by rains brought by El Nino.

``We're convinced the president is working for his re-election,'' he said.

Fujimori gained popularity in the early 1990s for taking tough measures that dealt blows to leftist guerrillas and restored order to a chaotic economy.

He enhanced his reputation as crisis manager in April, when he ordered the commando raid that freed 72 hostages held for more than four months by leftist rebels in the Japanese ambassador's residence.

But in the months that followed, scandals involving abuse of power and high poverty levels undermined his popularity.

Protests erupted after the government-controlled Congress removed three constitutional court judges who had ruled Fujimori could not run for a third term.

In another widely criticized measure, the government engineered the takeover of an opposition television station by its pro-Fujimori minority shareholders. The station had exposed the use of torture by the secret police and tapping of opposition politicians' telephones.

Since falling to under 20 percent in August, Fujimori's popularity has climbed to higher than 30 percent.

Althaus said Fujimori is trying to create a sense that an emergency is looming and that the country still needs his tough brand of leadership.

The 1982 El Nino, the strongest this century, caused 2,000 deaths and $13 billion in damages worldwide _ with rains and mudslides in California, drought in Brazil, Africa and Australia, and storms in the central Pacific. In Peru, it also was blamed on the economy shrinking by 12 percent.

The effects of El Nino this year are already being felt as far away as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.