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U.S. policy in Somalia may aid al-Qaida
Seattle Times
December 26, 2006

NAIROBI, Kenya — As fighting between a Muslim militia in Somalia and an Ethiopian intervention force has intensified over the past few days, Western diplomats and experts warned that U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa — intended to curb Islamic radicalism — may not only be fueling this newest conflict, but also may be making it easier for al-Qaida to gain a foothold in the strategic region.

Ethiopian jets bombed Somalia's two main airports Monday while ground troops captured three villages and a strategic border town, lending Somalia's internationally backed government crucial military aid in its struggle against the powerful Islamic militia.

The top Islamist official has called for "jihad" against what he said were Ethiopian invaders, and hundreds of foreign fighters, primarily from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Asian peninsula, reportedly have arrived in recent days to bolster the militia, known as the Council of Islamic Courts. Somalia has not had an effective government since warlords overthrew longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, pushing the country into anarchy. Two years ago, the United Nations helped set up a central government for the arid, impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa.

But the government has not been able to extend its influence outside the city of Baidoa, where it is headquartered about 140 miles northeast of Mogadishu. The country was largely under the control of warlords until this past summer, when the Islamic militia movement seized power.

Militia forces have surrounded Baidoa, but Ethiopian-backed government troops appeared to take the initiative on Monday. Pro-government forces drove Islamic fighters out of the key border town of Belet Weyne, then headed south in pursuit of fleeing militiamen, a Somali officer said.

The Islamic militia, which grew out of a network of ad hoc Muslim courts, has brought a measure of law to a lawless country. Village by village, they have won the support of businessmen and others who found the transitional government ineffective and the warlords unacceptable. The international airport reopened in July after being closed for a decade.

But leaders of the Islamic courts movement alarmed the country's neighbors by threatening to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

Many Somalis are enraged by Ethiopian intervention because the countries have fought two wars over their disputed border in the past 45 years. The U.N. estimates that Ethiopia has 8,000 troops in the country.

A recent U.N. report said 10 countries have been supplying arms and equipment to both sides of the conflict, using Somalia as a proxy battlefield. The Islamist movement is well financed, receiving money from the Somali diaspora and countries such as Eritrea, Yemen and others, according to a recent U.N. report.

Some analysts also fear that the courts movement hopes to make Somalia a third front, after Afghanistan and Iraq, in militant Islam's war against the West.

The Islamic group's often severe interpretation of Islam is reminiscent, to some, of Afghanistan's Taliban regime. The U.S. government says four al-Qaida leaders, believed to be behind the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, are now leaders in the Islamic militia.

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in a tape issued in June, welcomed a conflict in Somalia.

Though the Islamist movement includes moderate leaders, it is backed by a militant core of young fighters called shebab. Aden Hashi Ayro, a jihadist who trained in Afghanistan, is believed to be the group's leader.

The U.N. report last month said Ayro has received weapons and supplies from Eritrea, and alleged that Ayro sent approximately 720 Somali fighters to join the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah in this summer's war against Israel, although experts have cast doubt on that suggestion.

Western diplomats and experts said that many Courts leaders, like most Somalis, are moderates and fiercely nationalist. For that reason and because of the complex tangle of clan allegiances within the courts, it's premature to conclude that the Islamists will impose a repressive Taliban-style Islamic regime aligned with bin Laden, they said.

But experts said the hard-liners' influence is growing as the conflict intensifies.

The Bush administration's policies have reinforced a widespread belief that the United States tacitly supports Christian-ruled Ethiopia's intervention into the overwhelmingly Muslim country. Ethiopia is perceived as a historically Christian nation, though Muslims now make up nearly half its population.

Regional experts say a major war in Somalia could allow al-Qaida to claim that Christians are trying to suppress another Muslim nation and use that as a basis to recruit fighters from the adjoining Gulf region. That could bring about the very al-Qaida beachhead in East Africa that the Bush administration has been striving to prevent.

Among the most serious U.S. missteps in the run-up to the current fighting, analysts say, was the secret CIA payments to the secular warlords whose militias had controlled Mogadishu since the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers in 1995.

Disclosure of the payments to men widely despised for years of lawlessness helped galvanize Somalis behind the Islamists, who captured Mogadishu in June and went on to overrun most of southern Somalia.

One recipient of the payments was Abdi Hasan "Qaybdid" Awale, a former top aide to Mohammad Farah Aideed, the late militia leader whose forces killed 18 U.S. troops in 1993 in fighting in Mogadishu, which was portrayed in the film "Black Hawk Down."

"The Americans are trying to get [Ethiopia] to do what they wanted the warlords to do, which is get the bad guys," said a senior Western diplomat, who monitors Somalia from Nairobi and requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. According to Western diplomats and analysts, there's ample evidence of U.S. sympathy for the Ethiopian intervention. Among the signs:

• U.S. sponsorship of a Dec. 6 U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized, over the Islamists' opposition, the deployment of an African peacekeeping force but omitted a demand for the withdrawal of the estimated 8,000 Ethiopian troops.

• A visit by Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last month for talks with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

• The Bush administration's failure to insist publicly on an Ethiopian withdrawal or to participate directly in efforts to negotiate a cease-fire and power-sharing agreement between the transitional government and the Islamic Courts.

Some U.S. officials and many analysts said the administration has greatly inflated al-Qaida's role there. "It seems to be that there is such a knee-jerk [American] reaction to the idea of anything that is Islamic," said Abdi Samatar, a professor at the University of Minnesota. "We are losing the hearts and minds of anyone who matters."

"All this could have been averted," John Pendergast, a former Clinton administration adviser on Africa who's now with the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization. "If the U.S. joined a serious diplomatic effort aimed at finding a compromise between Ethiopia and the Courts, negotiations could have had a much better chance. Once the serious punching has started, it's going to be increasingly difficult to stop this brawl."

In addition, some analysts have expressed fear that Ethiopia's military calculation is seriously flawed, and that even if its superior military initially routs the Islamic movement, the ideologically driven militias will only become more motivated to pursue a guerrilla-style war or terrorist attacks across the region.

"Hasn't anyone heard of Iraq?" said Prendergast.

Compiled from McClatchy Newspapers, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and

The Associated Press

Original Text