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Somalia twists in the wind

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    Somalia twists in the wind Harun Hassan 12 - 4 - 2006 The local clan and territorial battles in Mogadishu are being reframed by the global war. But what is
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 12, 2006
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      Somalia twists in the wind
      Harun Hassan
      12 - 4 - 2006
      The local clan and territorial battles in Mogadishu are being reframed
      by the global war. But what is really happening, asks Harun Hassan.

      Somalia has been wracked by low-level violence between armed factions
      for fifteen years. The collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, the
      United States intervention of 1992-93, and long peace talks in
      neighbouring Kenya under United Nations auspices have punctuated these
      years of trauma for ordinary Somali citizens, as their country has
      increasingly been awarded the contemptuous designation of "failed
      state" in the eyes of the world.

      Throughout this period, the vast majority of Somalis have wanted
      nothing more than to resume their lives amidst security and a
      sustainable economy. Today, that is looking an even more remote
      prospect as the rule of arms has acquired a new, religious dimension
      which raises the question: is Somalia becoming a pawn in the wider
      "war on terror"?

      In the last few weeks, the already war-ravaged capital city of
      Mogadishu has experienced some of the heaviest and most costly
      fighting of recent years. Scores of people have been killed and
      hundreds injured in a dangerous new conflict that has divided
      relatives and former allies while uniting former foes.

      The combatants are two emerging rival groups: a faction led by the
      same warlords who have been at the forefront of the country's civil
      strife, supported by businessmen, and an element gathering under the
      banner of the Islamic courts.

      The Islamic courts, whose Mogadishu chairman is Sheik Sharif Sheik
      Ahmed have so far had the upper hand in the fighting. The courts's
      militias have seized heavy weapons and taken control of a seaport and
      an airfield (while forcing the closure of another airfield by
      threatening to shoot down any incoming planes). It is expected the
      warlords will regroup and come back for more. Mogadishu is preparing
      for the worst.

      The mistrust between the two sides has been under the surface for a
      long time, but the warlords have always been too busy with their
      futile power-struggles to take on the Muslim scholars. At the same
      time, the warlords have watched with alarm the gradual accretion of
      authority by the Islamic courts, realising that this was both a result
      of their own ineffectiveness and a threat to their future.

      Meanwhile, in the vacuum of political and legal authority in recent
      years and the frustration of the vast majority of the Somalis with the
      warlords, the Islamic courts found their own opportunity. The courts
      offered to restore peace and tranquillity to a people longing for an
      alternative route, through the complete implementation of sharia law.
      They point to evidence of its success in the areas that have tried it
      so far. The warlords have opposed any such proposal for over a decade,
      but the revival of the courts has given it a new momentum.

      Thus, the all-out war that has exploded only in recent weeks has been
      brewing for far longer. For more than a year, there have been
      unexplained assassinations in Somalia that had every appearance of
      careful planning. Among the victims were former military officers,
      activists and moderate politicians, as well as human-rights and
      justice workers like Abdulkadir Yahya Ali. More than twenty Muslim
      scholars and top officials in the Islamic courts were also killed in
      this kind of well-organised operation.

      No one has been able to establish exactly who was behind the murders
      on both sides. Off the record, the Islamic courts's leaders would
      claim that the United States and Somalia's historic adversary Ethiopia
      were recruiting former Somali army and intelligence officers to spy on
      and hunt down those inside Somalia suspected of Muslim extremism.
      These leaders were especially angered when a number of Muslim
      dissidents of Ethiopian origin living as exiles in Somalia suddenly
      disappeared, only to reappear in Ethiopian government custody.
      Ethiopia has always denied any involvement in internal Somali affairs.
      In any case, analysts believe that retaliation from Islamic activists
      for the abductions has taken the lives of several of the former officers.

      Both sides – the courts's leaders and Mogadishu's warlords – were
      until recently united against the Somali government of President
      Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, which was appointed in October 2004 as a result
      of negotiations in Kenya but has since failed to establish a secure
      base in Mogadishu. Instead, the government formed temporary
      headquarters in several other Somali cities. This led both the
      courts's leaders and the Mogadishu warlords to accuse President Yusuf
      of a sinister plot to undermine Somali sovereignty in collaboration
      with Ethiopia.

      Then, suddenly and out of nowhere, Mogadishu's main politicians turned
      against the courts. A number of powerful faction leaders and
      businessmen met to set up a new group called The Alliance for
      Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism. Terrorism has never been
      an issue in Somalia and there have never been any terrorism-related
      incidents in Somalia. This made the change of tone evident in the
      formation and title of this new alliance all the more striking. The
      political hostility the alliance expressed had the shape of a definite
      ideological stance.

      One of the main warlords behind the alliance (and the second most
      powerful in the capital) is Mohamed Qanyare Afrah. Afrah has accused
      the Islamic courts of harbouring foreign terrorists and assassins;
      while one of the alliance's businessmen, Bashir Rage, went further: he
      claimed that Interpol had given the new grouping a list of more than
      seventy "suspected foreign terrorists" in Somalia under the auspices
      of the Islamic courts. Rage, who has led the alliance's latest
      campaign, is rumoured to be the CIA's "best man in Mogadishu".

      Colonel Hassan Dahir Aweys, the most prominent Islamic courts leader,
      denied these allegations and in turn accused the warlords of
      "opportunism". He claimed that the warlords themselves were acting on
      "the orders of foreign elements". Aweys insisted that he himself had
      nothing to hide, that he had just retuned from Saudi Arabia, and that
      he does not belong to any unlawful group.

      There is no independent verification as to whether there are seventy
      or more terrorists in Somalia. However, Kenya as well as the United
      States claims that those who masterminded the attempted downing of an
      Israeli plane in Mombasa in November 2002 may have planned the attack
      from Somalia. The United States also regards the Somali religious
      group Al-Itihad Al-Islam (AIAI) as a "terrorist organisation". Hassan
      Dahir Aweys is a former head of AIAI's military wing. The group as a
      whole has never concealed that its principal objective is to turn
      Somalia into a religious state ruled by sharia law.

      The next intervention

      The clash between the warlords and the Islamic courts thus has an
      international as well as a Somali dimension. It seems likely that some
      help in the form of moral and financial "incentives" from other
      countries – presumably the United States, Italy and Ethiopia, three
      countries whose designs on Somalia are (it might be said without
      exaggeration) hardly "pure" – has encouraged the warlords to mobilise
      their forces against the courts under the guise of the new alliance.

      Indeed, a US state department official who monitors Somalia is quite
      explicit about US involvement in the conflict; he told AP on condition
      of anonymity that "U.S. officials had made contact with a wide range
      of Somalis." He declined to say what kind of support the US was supplying.

      The militias involved in the latest Somali fighting belong to the same
      clan groupings that are normally deployed in the field (occasionally
      shifting sides in accordance with the balance of forces). What is
      different is the fresh ideological dimension underlying the tension
      and violence. Somalia's earlier wars have been based on local
      rivalries, power-struggles and disgruntlements among ruthless but
      secular warlords; this one is propelled by a more strategic but
      potentially more complicated dispute.

      This is making an already grim situation even more serious. What
      scares many ordinary Somalis is the scale of the hostility and the
      deep hatred that both sides have shown for each other; one index of
      this is the way they have exchanged shellfire and heavy-weapons fire
      indiscriminately in and around the 2 million inhabitants of Mogadishu.

      The big question is whether this exercise will prompt another
      intervention by the United States, even in the light of the failure
      and humiliation that attended its "operation restore hope". The US
      conducts regular sea and air surveillance over Somalia, and has
      military facilities in the region that could be a stepping-stone to
      such involvement (including a large military base in neighbouring

      The US's predicament in Iraq makes an immediate US commitment to a
      physical presence in Somalia unlikely. But the US worries that the
      lack of political progress and popular disaffection with the warlords
      will lead Somalis to give more support to the Islamic courts.

      Some leaders, including President Yusuf, are in favour of some
      international intervention. Both sides involved in the current
      Mogadishu fighting oppose the idea, but they face their own dilemma:
      how to afford to continue fighting. The warlords have more money,
      militias and guns compared to the Islamic courts, but the courts are
      determined and well-organised, and can draw on significant backing
      from Somalis.

      The United Nations, which monitors the situation from Kenya, wants
      both sides to stop fighting. Its agencies are afraid that a worsening
      humanitarian crisis could be intensified by severe starvation, as the
      absence of a functioning administration makes it near-impossible to
      cope with the pressures of drought. Somalis fear that the disaster
      that has engulfed the country since 1991 shows as yet no sign of ending.

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