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Fears Of Jihad In Horn Of Africa

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By Laurie Goering

JOHANNESBURG , South Africa, Oct. 27, 2006 - Four months after Islamists seized the Somali capital of Mogadishu, promising a return to order and peace in war-ravaged Somalia, the Horn of Africa country and its neighbors sit at the brink of a new and potentially deadly conflict.

Somali Islamists, furious that Ethiopian troops have crossed the border to support Somalia's Western-backed secular government, have called for jihad against Ethiopia, raising fears that Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, could suffer bombings or other guerrilla attacks.

Ethiopia , the region's military powerhouse, accuses Islamist leaders of terrorist ties and remains determined to deny the movement control of Somalia. It helped Somalia's weak government push the movement out of the southern town of Bur Haqaba, handing the Islamists their first military setback.

About a thousand Somali refugees a day are streaming over the border into Kenya, fearing new conflict, according to the United Nations.

What's ahead for Somalia is probably "chronic low-intensity war," said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina. That makes any promises by the Islamists to effectively rebuild the shattered nation hard to fulfill, he said.

In recent months, the Union of Islamic Courts - a loose group of Islamists who had been running makeshift local courts in lawless Somalia - has seized ever-larger sections of the country.

While the Islamists have faced some local protests, particularly over their ban on the use of khat, a commonly chewed narcotic plant, the country's de facto leaders have enjoyed broad support from Somalis tired of years of anarchy.

"Most Somalis still believe they're the best option and are unwaveringly behind them," said Abdirahman Mohamed, a Somali doctor working in Zambia who has served as an adviser to both the Islamists and the country's transitional federal government.

While radical members of the Islamic coalition, including Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, have in recent months risen to prominence, raising fears of Taliban-like rule in Somalia, most Somalis continue to look at Sheik Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a respected moderate cleric, as the country's most likely future president, Mohamed said.

But the growing war of words with Ethiopia threatens to give the radicals - many of them the movement's military leaders - the upper hand.

Ethiopia has long looked at Somalia, its lawless neighbor, as a threat. Nationalistic Somali leaders have for decades dreamed of seizing land settled by ethnic Somalis that is now part of Ethiopia and Kenya and reuniting a Greater Somalia. Somalia's Islamists in recent months also have accepted weapons from Eritrea, Ethiopia's bitter enemy, and Somalia has served as a conduit for training and military supplies for two armed Ethiopian insurgencies.

Ethiopia , however, also has enraged Somalis by sending troops - the government insisted last week they are only military trainers - into Somalia to assist the country's weak secular government, which returned to Somalia from exile in Kenya last year.

That has allowed the Islamist movement to win over not just the minority of Somalis who support its desire to institute a Shariah-based Islamic justice system but the hugely nationalistic majority who see incursions of Ethiopian troops as a national insult.

By mobilizing for jihad against Ethiopia, the Islamists "give themselves broader support than they otherwise would have," Menkhaus said.

The focus on jihad, however, saps attention from Somalia's most serious problems - hospitals, schools, roads and other government services that are in tatters after more than a decade of anarchy.

Since the Islamists seized power in June, Mogadishu has turned from a capital of trigger-happy warlords to a relatively quiet place where locals can walk the streets safely and where facilities like the long-closed international airport are fast being reopened.

But expanding that effort throughout Somalia will be difficult, particularly if the movement's focus is diverted toward battling Ethiopia.

"If you had the best interests of the Somali people at heart, why would you provoke tensions that could lead to war with one of the largest standing armies in sub-Saharan Africa?" Menkhaus said.

He pointed to ousted Somali leader Mohamed Siyad Barre's decision in 1977 to invade the Ogaden region of Ethiopia in pursuit of building a Greater Somalia, a move that ultimately failed and destroyed about half of Somalia's military. The Islamists' call for jihad against Ethiopia now puts Somalia "on the same trajectory exactly," he said.

At the same time, Ethiopia "will not accept (the Islamists) being in firm control of the government of Somalia," said John Prendergast, an Africa expert with the Washington-based International Crisis Group.

The United States also shares Ethiopia's concern that some Islamist leaders may have terrorist ties. The U.S. initially urged Ethiopia not to take military action against the Islamists, hoping for dialogue between them and the transitional government, Menkhaus said. But as some Islamist hard-liners gain prominence, "I suspect U.S. pressure on Ethiopia not to act has evaporated," he said.

Mohamed said he believes Ethiopia's strategy to combat the Islamists will focus on simply trying to slow down their momentum in taking over the country, with hopes that internal dissent among the diverse group eventually will destroy it.

But if that doesn't work, Somalis fear Ethiopian troops could join with the secular government's soldiers to try to retake parts of the country now under Islamist control. That "would be the beginning of terrible things," Mohamed said, including the possibility of guerrilla attacks by Somali jihadists in Addis Ababa.

"Will they go to war?" Prendergast said of Somalia and Ethiopia. "The costs would be enormous."

Source: Chicago Tribune


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