A shot at creating a vital state in Somalia
U.S. to urge rivals to form government that shares power
- Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2007
With constructive efforts by the United States and the international community, the recent expulsion of Somalia's self-proclaimed Islamist rulers can lead to the formation of a viable state in the war-torn East African nation for the first time in 15 years, experts say.
But without a concentrated push for a coalition government that would represent all elements of Somalia's deeply fragmented society, the country probably will plunge into renewed clan warfare, paving the way for Islamists to return to power and establish a Taliban-like state that could serve as a haven for international terrorists, they warn.
The Islamic Courts Union, whose militia had swept to power in Mogadishu last summer and imposed strict Shariah law over much of the country's south, fled the capital last week as Ethiopian air strikes and troops swept across the border to bolster Somalia's weak transitional government. Although that body is recognized by the United Nations, Somalia has not had an effective federal government since 1991.
"This is the best chance we've had in at least 10 years," said Susan Rice, an expert on Africa and failed states at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "The United States has a real stake: whether Somalia remains a failed state -- which can be a haven for terrorists, as it is now -- or whether it can be a viable state."
Signaling that the Bush administration sees the Islamists' retreat as an opportunity to bring stability to Somalia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has dispatched her top aide for African affairs to the region "to urge inclusive political dialogue, to build a legitimate, functioning government that will serve all Somalis, and to move forward with the urgent deployment of a regional stabilization force.
"The Somali people and the international community have an historic opportunity to begin to move beyond two decades of warlordism, extreme violence and humanitarian suffering," Rice wrote in a statement Thursday.
She also announced that the United States will provide more than $16.5 million in food aid and assistance to children and refugees in Somalia.
The U.N. Security Council last month endorsed the deployment of an African peacekeeping force to Somalia. Jendayi Frazer, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Africa, said she was expecting African peacekeepers in Somalia by the end of January. So far, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has promised to send up to 2,000 troops to Somalia, Frazer said. Ethiopia says it currently has 4,000 troops in Somalia, but will pull them out within weeks.
Money and troops are secondary to diplomacy in stabilizing Somalia, said Matt Bryden, an expert with the International Crisis Group who is based in Nairobi, Kenya.
"The issue is whether or not the transitional government can be reconstituted to share power with its former opponents," Bryden said. "Pledging money and peacekeepers in support of the current transitional government is a waste of time and effort."
The United States has a history of political and diplomatic blunders in Somalia. Its disastrous military effort to go after warlords in 1992-93 forged an image of American defeat captured in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." The United States then backed warlords in a failed proxy war against the Islamic Courts Union, which largely stopped clan-based violence after it came to power in June.
The transitional government was formed in exile in Kenya in 2004. It consists mainly of warlords and clan leaders, lives off international handouts and has little credibility among Somalis, who threw their support behind the Islamic Courts Union because they promised an end to clan wars.
"What we need is a clear message from the international community that they are not prepared to support this government unless it takes the political steps necessary to broaden its base, become inclusive and welcome moderate Islamic Court members," Bryden said. "The last statements from Washington suggest that this is what they'd like to see."
Already, the collapse of Islamic Courts is reviving old clan rivalries that propelled the Islamist militia to power. Fighters loyal to various warlords have resumed setting up checkpoints. On Thursday, Somali gunmen attacked an oil tanker truck near Mogadishu with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, wounding three people.
Government and Ethiopian troops, meanwhile, searched for leaders of the Islamic Courts near the Kenya border, while U.S. Navy forces prevented militants from fleeing by sea, according to news reports from the area.
The government's order for civilians to surrender weapons by Thursday was universally ignored. Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi promised to begin today seizing heavy weapons, such as trucks with mounted anti-aircraft guns, known in Somalia as "technicals," if necessary conducting door-to-door searches and taking weapons by force. Somali officials say there are about 3,500 armed Islamists hiding in and around the capital.
After the central government collapsed in 1991, anarchic southern Somalia became a launching pad for terrorists linked to al Qaeda, including those who attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, bombed a Kenyan resort and tried to down an Israeli aircraft in Kenya in 2002, say State Department reports. The Islamic Courts Union denies any links to al Qaeda.
Resurgence of clan-based wars that devastated the country in the 1980s and 1990s "will just make it easy for Islamists to come back again, and they could come back in six months or a year, and people would welcome them back," said Karin von Hippel, an expert on Somalia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Von Hippel pointed to the increasing popularity of the hard-line Islamist militia in Afghanistan, where the central government is weak, warning, "The Taliban is a good thing to keep in mind."
E-mail Anna Badkhen at email@example.com
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