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As Threat Of Regional Conflict Grows, A Critical Moment For Somalia
"From today, I am declaring jihad against Ethiopia which has invaded our country and taken parts of our homeland." The words of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, leader of the Islamic Council that now controls much of Somalia, on Oct. 9. He was reacting to the seizure of a town by the Council's opponents -- reportedly alongside Ethiopian troops.
It was the latest broadside in a rapidly escalating war of words -- and sometimes of weapons -- involving Somalia's Islamists, the beleaguered transitional government and regional states. At stake: whether Somalia will become the battleground for a wider war, a new front in the war on terror, or under Islamic rule find some measure of stability.
A Decade of Violence
The international community has long avoided confronting Somalia's anarchy. Traumatized by the U.S. and U.N. peacekeeping disaster between 1992 and 1994, it looked the other way as Somalia descended into clan warfare. A new force rose amid the carnage: a well-organized, well-armed Islamist movement.
Through the 1990s, Islamic courts became one of the few sources of authority in the capital, Mogadishu, and were widely relied upon by business interests to settle disputes. After building its own militia, the Islamic Courts Union became a national political force in the summer of 2006, as Somalia's narrowly based transitional government atrophied through clan-based dissent. In the last three months, the Islamists have extended their control to much of central and southern Somalia.
Despite Somalis' long tradition as moderate Sufi Muslims, the Islamists are enforcing strict Sharia law, and include among their leaders figures linked to terrorism. Somalia is at a critical juncture as the Islamists consolidate their control: Will they reach an accommodation with the transitional government? How will Somalia's neighbors and the wider international community handle the sudden rise of hard-line Islamic rule in the Horn of Africa?
The great powers have long fought over Somalia. Close to Middle East shipping lanes and the oil refineries on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast, it has a strategic position -- even if few proven resources of its own. It has long and porous borders with Ethiopia and Kenya. Its population is almost entirely Sunni Muslim, but traditionally Somalis follow the moderate Sufi School of Islam. Loyalty to clan has always trumped loyalty to flag -- and that has contributed to the country's endemic instability.
When President Mohamed Siyad Barre was overthrown in 1991, Somalia became a battleground for warlords and a humanitarian catastrophe. Bringing emergency aid to Mogadishu was the initial aim of the U.S. intervention launched by President George Bush days before he left office. But the mission quickly became embroiled in Somalia's clan warfare. Today, the city is in ruins. A correspondent for the Irish Times recently described it as "a post-apocalyptic nightmare. It is little more than a shantytown spread among the ruins of Italianate villas, tumble-down cathedrals and bullet-riddled hotels that once commanded the seafront."
During more than a decade of anarchy, Somaliland in the north broke away to form its own government, which is not recognized by the international community but has brought stability to that area. Thirteen attempts at forming a government for the rest of the country came to nothing before international diplomacy finally helped create a fragile transitional government in 2004. Under President Abdillahi Yussuf, it has been a government in name only. Powerful elements of the Hawiye clan, one of Somalia's most important, were marginalized. Clans squabbled for the spoils of office; militia that owed no loyalty to the government continued to roam the streets of Mogadishu, extorting civilians but bringing no security to the city.
After two weeks of gun battles in June against secular militia, the Islamic Courts Union prevailed in Mogadishu. Worn out by more than a decade of chaos, the people of the capital welcomed the order brought by the Islamists, who reopened the capital's airport and port, reduced crime and began to clear garbage-strewn streets. International aid organizations such as the World Food Program have praised the ICU for bringing stability to the capital and allowing a resumption of international aid, and played down reports of Islamic extremism. "In 15 years, no one was able to do what they did in 15 days," said U.N. official Saverio Bertolino.
The Islamists have adopted strict Sharia practices in asserting their control of the capital -- closing down makeshift cinemas, destroying satellite receivers and televisions, forbidding the sale of the popular narcotic leaf qat, forbidding live music at weddings and inflicting public whippings on men accused of possessing drugs. Grateful for security, the people of Mogadishu have rarely protested these moves (except when militia tried to stop men watching the soccer World Cup).
Once it controlled Mogadishu, the ICU quickly imposed its authority across a wide swathe of central and southern Somalia. By late September, the Courts had seized the important port of Kismayo, 260 miles south of Mogadishu and just 100 miles from the border with Kenya, a city previously controlled by a defense minister in the transitional government. It was here that the Islamist militia ran into their first popular resistance, having to fire to disperse protestors angry by the ban on the sale of qat, the livelihood for many women market traders. But there was no military challenge to the takeover and local warlords handed over their weapons.
The transitional government's writ now extends barely beyond the city of Baidoa, and it is widely reported that Ethiopian troops guard the approaches to the city. The government has shown few signs of being able to broaden its base of support to include moderate Islamists and members of the powerful Hawiye clan. It's unclear whether the ICU plans to move against the transitional government, but it may not need to. Gradually, the government is being hemmed in on three sides, reliant on Ethiopian support for its existence.
Baidoa itself is hardly secure. A suicide car-bomb attack in September -- the first in Somalia's history -- narrowly missed killing President Abdillahi Yusuf. Eleven others, including the president's brother, were killed in the bomb attack and subsequent gun battle. Six of the dead were alleged assailants. The government said the ICU's fingerprints were "all over the attack"; the ICU predictably denied all knowledge. Since then, the Islamic militia have stepped up pressure on the transitional government: By early October its units were within 12 miles of Baidoa, the Associated Press reported. There are signs that a showdown between the two sides may be imminent. Early in October, government units briefly took over a town between Baidoa and Mogadishu. Witnesses said Ethiopian troops were involved, a claim categorically denied by Addis Ababa. But ICU leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed suggested the conflict would escalate, saying "It is a religious responsibility to go to the main headquarters of the invasion" and speaking of " Ethiopia's naked aggression."
There have been talks between the government and ICU, under the auspices of the Arab League. The last such meeting, in Khartoum at the end of August, agreed on a truce and the ultimate goal of a unified army. But within weeks the ICU had taken more territory in southern Somalia, advances described by the prime minister of the transitional government, Ali Mohammed Gedi, as "contrary to peace deals reached in Sudan. The Islamic courts' main priority is to use violence," he said. The U.N. is trying to rescue another round of talks scheduled for late October.
The ICU has recently begun to set up what it calls "holy war" training camps in a bid to deter East African governments from sending peacekeepers to Somalia. Seven African states had endorsed a plan to send some 3,500 Ugandan and Sudanese peacekeepers to Somalia. But the plan is unlikely to become reality. The U.N. would have to lift the weapons embargo against Somalia before they could enter, the African Union would have to fund the peacekeepers and, above all, regional peacekeepers lack the logistical ability to execute the plan -- more so now that the entry point of Kismayo has fallen to the ICU.
They would also encounter stiff resistance. Even the moderate chairman of the Islamic Courts, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has warned that any foreign troops will be resisted, whether they come as peacekeepers or aggressors. Another senior cleric, Sheikh Oman Iman Abubakar, told a Mogadishu rally in September: "We will never allow a single foreign soldier into our country. We will fight against them until death." The ICU is not alone in issuing such a warning. In an audio message released in July, Osama Bin Laden lauded the Courts and urged them to attack the transitional government, while warning foreign governments: "We pledge that we will fight your soldiers on the land of Somalia and we will fight you on your own land if you dispatch troops to Somalia."
Within the ICU, more radical leaders have gained the upper hand this year -- at the expense of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Prominent among them is Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is designated a terrorist by the United States after leading al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, an Islamist militia accused of having links to al-Qaida in the 1990s. Aweys has become Chairman of the Supreme Islamic Council or Shura and announced that all Islamic courts will fall under its command. He takes an uncompromising line on social issues, insisting that women wear the Hijab in public. He told Newsweek in July that television "misleads the people and teaches them bad character and a culture from some other countries that we don't share."
A close ally of Aweys is Aden Hashi Ayro, a military chief who has been linked to the murder of four aid workers in Somaliland and a BBC journalist. The U.N. says Ayro has received training in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. Ayro has become more prominent as the ICU has spread its influence and was involved in the takeover of Kismayo. He is believed to command some 3,000 fighters and said in Kismayo that Islamic militia would include both Somalis and foreigners.
The Arab League and East African states have both tried to influence events in Somalia, but often with conflicting aims. The Arab League has organized talks between the transitional government and ICU, while East African governments -- through the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) -- have pushed the peacekeeping option.
Kenya is especially concerned about an influx of refugees. Somali gangs already cause instability in northern Kenya: The U.N. estimates that some 25,000 Somali refugees have already crossed into Kenya this year. Both Kenya and Ethiopia have Muslim minorities, and Ethiopia has a long history of tension with Somalia. Siyad Barre tried in 1977 to wrest the Muslim area of Ogaden from Ethiopia by force, and Addis Ababa fears the Islamists will aid the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is of Somali origin. Ethiopia has pledged to do whatever necessary to protect Somalia's transitional government in Baidoa. It admits it is training Baidoa's security forces but denies persistent reports that Ethiopian soldiers have crossed the border. There are also signs that the Islamic Courts may even want to bait the Ethiopians into intervening, by threatening Baidoa. A sizeable Ethiopian incursion would give them cause to mobilize for jihad.
Eritrea , with which Ethiopia fought a border war in 2000, has sided with the Islamists. Regional analysts believe Eritrea was behind a mysterious shipment that arrived in Mogadishu on a Kazakh-registered cargo plane in July. Onlookers were prevented from watching the plane unload. The Eritreans say they have not shipped arms to the Islamists but trouble in Somalia would benefit Eritrea -- drawing Ethiopian troops away from its border. Notably, Eritrea has been absent from regional discussions on sending peacekeepers.
To the north, the President of Northern Somaliland, Dahir Rayale Kahin, has warned that any attempt by the Islamists to extend their influence to his fledgling state will be resisted. He told the Associated Press that while Sharia law has long been used in Somalia, it had now taken on a disturbing "fanatical slant."
The United States has watched developments in Somalia with growing unease. For several years it supported and financed the clan militia now driven out of Mogadishu, hoping they would flush out al-Qaida figures allegedly hiding there. (Washington believes three al-Qaida terrorists involved in the attack on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 are sheltered by the Islamists.) It was a low-level proxy war with no dividends; the clans exploited the U.S. need for counterterrorism allies but failed to deliver security to the people of Mogadishu. It was also an alliance that only stirred up anti-Western sentiment in Mogadishu, especially among the powerful Hawiye clan. And it exposed tensions in Washington between the Defense Department and CIA on the one hand -- with the pursuit of terrorism their priority -- and the State Department on the other, which favored dialog between the factions. Now that the U.S.-backed militia have been evicted from Mogadishu, the United States has few policy options in Somalia.
When the Islamists took control of Mogadishu, President Bush said his "first concern, of course, is to make sure that Somalia does not become an al-Qaida safe haven -- it doesn't become a place from which terrorists can plot and plan." But the U.S. State Department has stopped short of taking sides, calling on the transitional government and Islamists to negotiate a power-sharing deal. Washington's ability to influence events is handicapped by a lack of urgency within the administration toward events in Somalia, as well as dire relations with the government of Sudan (which has hosted previous talks between the Somali factions). The U.S. military presence in Djibouti (part of U.S. Central Command) tries to monitor but is unable to influence events on the ground as the allies on which it has depended grow weaker. So overstretched are U.S. forces by existing commitments that military intervention is almost unthinkable -- especially given current U.S. public opinion on overseas entanglements. U.S. support for the transitional government would be interpreted by the ICU as interference in Somalia's affairs and given the weakness of the Baidoa government would also likely be counterproductive.
Somalia is in imminent danger of slipping towards renewed civil war, with rival factions being supplied and financed by East African and Arab states. Even the relatively peaceful area of Somaliland is unlikely to be immune. There is also the immediate prospect of much of the country being dominated by a hard-line Islamic movement -- a first in Africa. For the first time in Somalia, clan loyalties are being stifled as an overarching appeal to Islam gains ground. Depending on how the Islamic Courts Union develops, the worst-case scenario imagines Somalia becoming another front in the war on terror, one as intractable as Iraq and Afghanistan and destabilizing to much of East Africa.
The international community can prevent such a chain of events through consistent and even-handed pressure on all sides through the International Contact Group on Somalia. Its priority should be to negotiate a power-sharing agreement and establish national institutions absent since 1991. The ICU must be engaged, especially moderates such as Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and the transitional government reinvented. Arab League and African Union mediation needs to be complementary rather than competitive, with Europe and the United States playing a role in restraining regional actors like Ethiopia and Eritrea. Italy's special envoy to Somalia has suggested neutral monitors patrol the Ethiopia-Somalia border, but admits that would need the agreement of both countries. The U.N. Security Council also needs to keep Somalia on its radar. In July it recommended the U.N. envoy for Somalia visit the region, but his tour did not begin until early October. With global attention focused on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea, Somalia is not a priority.
In the longer term, the prospect of a surge in conflict will increase the risk of another humanitarian disaster in a region where millions already live a marginal existence in lands prone to drought. The U.S. government says the drought cycle in the region has fallen from one in eight to one in three years. The Horn of Africa's ecosystem s among the most degraded in the world, and high birth rates in Somalia (where probably half the population is under the age of 15) threaten acute humanitarian pressures in years to come.
The gloomiest outlook for Somalia, and the Horn of Africa, can be averted. But only with the sort of international commitment that now seems unlikely.
Tim Lister has covered international news for 25 years as a producer and reporter for the BBC and CNN. He has lived and worked in the Middle East, and has also worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2004, he produced the award-winning documentary "Between Hope and Fear: Journeys in the New Iraq" for CNN. He is now an independent writer and producer.
Source: World Politics Watch (A Foreign Policy and National Security Daily)