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Security Outlook Seen as Fragile
WASHINGTON, Jan 4 (IPS) - While U.S. officials were euphoric over last month's unexpectedly easy rout by Ethiopia and Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of the Islamic Courts Union, scepticism that stability can be restored to the long-suffering African nation remains high.
Much now depends, according to regional specialists, on whether the fractious TFG can be persuaded to make far-reaching concessions to bring moderate elements of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and its associated clans into the government as part of broad-based political settlement.
Without tangible progress in that direction, they say, African countries will be very reluctant to contribute troops to any peacekeeping force that will theoretically replace the Ethiopian forces that spearheaded the military campaign and brought the TFG to Mogadishu, the capital.
For his part, Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi is reportedly eager to withdraw his forces, knowing that their presence, particularly in the capital, can and will be used to rally nationalist sentiment against both Ethiopia, Somalia's traditional enemy, and the TFG.
"The Ethiopians have made it clear they want to withdraw as soon as possible," according to one knowledgeable diplomatic source who asked not to be identified. "Their objective of taking out the Courts militarily has been achieved, and now they want to leave because they know they'll become the target for all sorts of stuff."
At the same time, however, both Meles and the TFG remain uncertain about whether and to what extent the ICU forces -- which, after taking heavy losses in the first few days of fighting around the provisional capital Baidoa, simply abandoned Mogadishu and other cities that it had previously held -- have actually been defeated.
"I don't think the Ethiopians will leave any time soon, because Meles knows that if they do, the Islamists will take over again, and the TFG doesn't have the muscle to stop them," according to Ted Dagne, a veteran specialist on the Horn of Africa at the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
"It looks as if the Islamists have been defeated, but what they have done is gone underground," he told IPS. "We don't know what they're going to do or how they will re-emerge."
"A lot of the (Court's) militia more or less melted away," according to the diplomatic source. "They're still present; they're still armed, and there's a real possibility that they could become an insurgency if a political settlement can't be devised."
The ICU broke onto the international scene last summer when its militias defeated a U.S.-backed coalition of warlords and chased them out of Mogadishu. Washington had accused the Courts of harbouring three al Qaeda suspects allegedly involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Through the rest of the summer and fall, the Courts, which were backed by key clans and businessmen, steadily expanded their control over most of the rest of the country, reportedly earning considerable popular support for restoring security and law and order to towns and cities that had been the battlegrounds of warlords since 1991.
As they extended their hold, however, Meles, who accused the Courts of supporting Somali insurgents in Ethiopia, sent some 8,000 troops to Baidoa to defend the TFG and help train its forces.
Amid rising tensions provoked both by the presence of the Ethiopian troops and the approval of a U.S.-sponsored resolution by the U.N. Security Council that exempted a peacekeeping force supporting the TFG from a long-standing arms embargo on Somalia, the ICU militias attacked the provisional capital in mid-December but were quickly overwhelmed by vastly superior Ethiopian firepower.
The Bush administration made little secret of its support for Ethiopia, whose armed forces, perhaps the most powerful in sub-Saharan Africa, have been the recipient of considerable U.S. military aid and training over the past decade.
Indeed, on the eve of the Courts' attack, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jenayi Frazer told reporters here that the Courts' leadership "is now controlled by al Qaeda cell individuals... (who are) terrorists", while the State Department subsequently defended Ethiopia's counter-offensive as a response to "aggression" by the Islamists.
In addition to reportedly sharing intelligence with the Ethiopians, the U.S. in the past week has also deployed naval vessels off the southern coast of Somalia near its border with Kenya, where some of the more radical elements of the Courts' militias are believed to have retreated, apparently in hopes of preventing their escape by sea.
While U.S. officials have expressed considerable satisfaction with the rout of the Courts, they appear increasingly aware that the victory may be fleeting, particularly if a peacekeeping force capable of replacing the Ethiopians cannot be constituted before Meles decides he must withdraw his troops.
Thus, Washington has focused primarily over the past week on persuading Uganda, which earlier this fall had pledged 1,000 troops to a peacekeeping force, to prepare for early deployment. Indeed, Fraser met with Meles and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Addis Ababa Thursday. "Museveni is under a huge amount of pressure," said the diplomatic source.
But Museveni, whose troops lack the battlefield experience and heavy equipment of the Ethiopians, is considered by regional analysts here unlikely to follow through in the absence of firm commitments by other African states, according to David Shinn, a former ambassador to Ethiopia who teaches at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.
"I can't imagine they'd go in without others going in, too," he said, noting that there have been rumours that Nigeria and Sudan may be willing to send troops, but that, so far, a peacekeeping force "is still basically the figment of someone's imagination.." He also stressed that time was running out. "The Ethiopians can't stay around Mogadishu and deep inside Somalia for more than a few weeks," he said.
Meanwhile, European diplomats meeting in Brussels this week have stressed the importance of reaching a broad-based political settlement that would bring moderate members of the Courts -- some of whom remain in Mogadishu or are in Nairobi -- and their associated clans, especially the Hawiye who predominate in Mogadishu, into the TFG.
As things now stand, the transitional government remains a motley and fractious group of warlords and clan leaders with very little, if any support in the capital itself, a fact made clear by the almost total lack of response to its demand that all weapons be turned over to its security forces this week.
But there is considerable doubt that the TFG, and particularly its prime minister, Ali Mohammed Gedi, has either the inclination or the will to make the necessary compromises. "Gedi doesn't inspire confidence," according to the diplomatic source, "and there's very serious doubt that these guys in the TFG can deliver. And if they can't, the chances that an insurgency will develop increase sharply."
In recent days, Washington has shown greater understanding for the Europeans' emphasis on a political settlement, according to Dagne. "We're likely to see a slight shift in policy toward more emphasis on dialogue and the importance of bringing moderate elements into the fold, even as (Washington) steps up pressure on Uganda and other African countries to come up with troops."
"But the only way to get this is to bring a chunk of the (Courts') leadership into the government to signal the rank and file that no insurgency is necessary," he added. (END/2007)