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SOMALIA: Despite Lull in Fighting, Stability Looks Remote

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Apr 30 2007 (IPS) - Four months after U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces drove the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) out of its last stronghold in Kismaayo, Somalia’s return to stability looks as distant as ever, according to experts here.

The latest round of fighting between the combined Ethiopian and transitional federal government’s (TFG) forces and a coalition of clan militias and ICU remnants in Mogadishu, described by international relief groups as the worst in more than 15 years, appears to have ended.

But despite Ethiopian claims that the month-long campaign has “broken the backbone” of the rebels, as well as reports that the TFG has begun talking with Hawiye leaders, most analysts here believe that the current calm is unlikely to last more than a few weeks before fighting resumes.

“For the moment, it’s safe to assume that it’s just a lull,” said Ken Menkhaus, a Horn of Africa specialist at Davidson College in North Carolina. “Right now, the odds on a breakthrough in talks in Mogadishu are very remote.”

“The urgent task is to regain control of the security situation, and you can only do that if all the major clans, sub-clans, and sub-sub-clans feel they’re part of the system,” according to David Shinn, a retired diplomat who most recently served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. “Somalis all know this; their problem is they don’t want to share power.”

Last month’s fighting was particularly destructive. More than 1,000 civilians are believed to have been killed, while up to 400,000 more fled the city. The indiscriminate use of heavy weapons and mortars by both sides was condemned by international human rights groups and the U.N.’s top humanitarian official denounced it as a violation of international humanitarian law.

Ethiopia’s late-December rout of the ICU was greeted by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush as a decisive victory in the “global war on terror”.

The ICU, which had itself succeeded in restoring stability to most of Somalia after defeating a coalition of U.S.-backed warlords last summer, was accused by Washington of harbouring and ultimately coming under the control of al Qaeda terrorists.

The U.S. not only provided the Ethiopians with intelligence and logistical support during their two-week campaign, it also deployed its own Special Operations Forces on the ground and carried out several helicopter-gunship attacks against alleged al Qaeda associates in southern Somalia, although none hit their intended targets.

Both Washington and Addis Ababa had hoped that Ethiopian troops could be quickly replaced by an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force that could back up the TFG, which moved from its provisional capital in Baidoya to Mogadishu.

By this hope has been delayed indefinitely dashed by the successive rounds of fighting in Mogadishu.

While pledges of peacekeepers were secured from Ghana, Nigeria, Burundi, and Malawi by late January, only 900 troops from Uganda have actually been deployed to date.

“To have an AU force step into a hostile situation like the one last week is impossible,” said Shinn. “They’ll do what the Ugandans have done: hunker down and make deals (with the different sides) that ‘We don’t shoot at you if you don’t shoot at us’.”

That has left Ethiopia, Somalia’s traditional enemy, in a situation that some have compared to the U.S. position in Iraq after its lightning invasion there four years ago.

“Without Ethiopia’s troops there, the danger is you’ll have a vacuum that will be easily filled by various forces, like warlords, the TFG, and the ICU, that will guarantee a return to anarchy and chaos,” according to Ted Dagne, a Somalia expert at the Congressional Research Service here. “At the same time, Ethiopia’s continued presence undermines the TFG’s legitimacy in the eyes of most Somalis. It’s a catch-22.”

The difficulty of Ethiopia’s position was underlined last week when dozens of gunmen overran a Chinese-run oil field near the Somali border, killing more than 70 people, including nine Chinese, and abducting seven other Chinese workers who were subsequently released last weekend. The Ogaden Liberation Front (ONLF), which has fought a low-level guerrilla war against the Ethiopian government for decades, claimed responsibility for the attack.

“The ONLF has never been able to carry out an effort of that magnitude,” said Shinn, who currently teaches at George Washington University here. “I assume they timed it because they knew the Ethiopians had their hands full in Mogadishu.”

Shinn believes that last week’s attack will, if anything, make Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi even more anxious to withdraw his troops from Somalia but that Washington, fearing a new security vacuum, is pressing him against such a move at this time. Some officials here fear that the triumphalist statements from Addis Ababa about the latest round of fighting in Mogadishu may presage a quick withdrawal.

“It’s really not in (the Ethiopians’) interest to hang around there, and I think they know that, but the Ugandans certainly can’t hold the city for the TFG, and the TFG doesn’t have enough forces to do the job.”

That, in the view of most experts here, makes negotiations designed to substantially broaden the base of the TFG by creating a government of national unity that includes the Hawiye clan and moderate elements of the ICU all the more urgent.

But even though the Ethiopians have engaged Hawiye leaders in talks about power-sharing, the current TFG, which is led by President Abdullah Yusuf of the rival Darod clan, does not appear inclined to move in that direction.

Since late January, the Bush administration has also called not only for Hawiye leaders to be brought into the government, but also for the TFG to engage moderate ICU leaders, of whom the most prominent is Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a step for which the Ethiopians have shown less enthusiasm, according to Menkhaus.

“The key role that the U.S. can play is convincing Ethiopia that it can and must live with a government that includes many of the constituencies in Mogadishu that have historically been adversaries,” he said.

How strongly Washington – particularly through its point-person on Somalia, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer – has conveyed its views remains unclear.

“Publicly, she’s emphasising the need for reconciliation, but she’s not defining what that means precisely,” said Shinn. ‘It’s wonderful if you go around telling everyone to engage in political dialogue, but it doesn’t mean anything without being specific. They may say, ‘Yes, Madame Secretary’, but then chuckle when she leaves the room.”

But, like Menkhaus, Shinn agrees that the greatest source of leverage over the TFG is the Ethiopians. “They’re the ones who can really tell the TFG, ‘Look, guys, you’ve got to expand this government,’ and it’s not clear they’re doing this. They still consider some of these guys, like Sheikh Sharif, enemies. They have to take a few risks and allow a few people they don’t trust into the government.”

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