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Somalia’s Islamists and Ethiopia Gird for a War
A woman took part Friday in an anti-Ethiopia rally in Mogadishu held by supporters of the Islamist group that controls most of Somalia.
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN and MARK MAZZETTI
MOGADISHU, Somalia, — The stadium was packed, the guns were cocked and even the drenching rain could not douse the jihadist fire.
Thousands of Somalis, from fully veiled, machine-gun-toting women to little boys in baggy fatigues, gathered Friday to rally against what they called foreign aggression. As a squall blew in, they punched wet fists into the air and yelled, “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.”
“I am ready to die,” said Osama Abdi Rahim, dressed head to toe in camouflage and marching around with a loaded rifle. He is 7 years old.
The inevitability of war hangs over Mogadishu, Somalia’s bullet-pocked seaside capital. But unlike the internal anarchy that has consumed the country for 15 years, the looming battle is now with Ethiopia, threatening to further destabilize the troubled Horn of Africa.
In the past week the increasingly militant Islamists in control of Mogadishu and much of the rest of the country have begun a food drive, a money drive and an AK-47 assault rifle drive, and have sent doctors and nurses, along with countless young soldiers, to the front lines.
For its part, Ethiopia, with tacit approval from the United States, has been steadily slipping soldiers across the border, trying to hold off the Islamists and shore up Somalia’s weak, unpopular and divided transitional government.
Though that government has been recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate authority in Somalia, its power barely extends to the municipal limits of Baidoa, the inland town where it is based.
The Islamist forces, on the other hand, seem to be very popular here, having defeated Mogadishu’s warlords earlier this year to pacify one of the world’s most murderous cities.
Their troops, which United Nations officials say are secretly getting weapons from several Arab countries and Eritrea, have encircled Baidoa and are vowing to wage war against the Ethiopian forces unless they leave. Ethiopian convoys have been attacked, and the Islamists recently skirmished with soldiers from Baidoa, with dozens reported killed. That taste of war seems to have whetted the appetite for more.
“We wait for the Ethiopians like dry land waits for rain,” said Mustafa Ali Mohammed, an Islamic leader in Burhakaba, a town near the dividing line between the Islamists and Baidoa.
Analysts are unanimous that a full-scale conflict between the Islamists and Ethiopia, a country with a strong Christian identity, would be disastrous for Somalia, which is already suffering from severe flooding and years of neglect, and for the region as a whole, because neighboring countries may jump in.
Gen. John P. Abizaid of United States Central Command — or Centcom — which has responsibility for American military interests in the region, recently flew to Ethiopia to meet with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who had told American officials that he could cripple the Islamist forces “in one to two weeks.”
Walking a careful line, General Abizaid made it clear that a broad military invasion of Somalia could create a humanitarian crisis across the Horn of Africa, Centcom officials said, but did not tell Ethiopian officials to pull their troops out.
Indeed, some American officials say the United States supports Ethiopia’s military buildup because they feel it is the only way to protect the weak Baidoa government from being overrun, force the Islamists to the negotiating table and contain what they call a growing regional threat.
American officials have accused the Islamists of sheltering terrorists connected to Al Qaeda, but the Ethiopian troops’ presence seems to have only increased the potential for terrorist activity. Suicide bombers, unknown in Somalia until a few months ago, have attacked Baidoa twice recently, and last month the first Iraqstyle roadside bombs were detonated against Ethiopian convoys.
Residents of Mogadishu say hundreds of fighters from other Muslim countries have arrived at the city’s main airport in recent days, drawn by the Islamists’ blaring call for a holy war against Ethiopia and against America, which is especially despised here.
Memories are still fresh of the botched American-led relief operation in the early 1990s, and more recently of the covert American effort to bolster Mogadishu’s warlords in an 11th-hour bid to prevent an Islamist takeover. That strategy backfired, driving more people into the arms of the Islamists.
“I’ll be honest,” said Sheik Muktar Robow Abu Monsur, the deputy security chief for the Islamists. “ America is the best friend of Islam. It wakes up the sleeping Muslim.”
In fact, Jendayi Frazer, the State Department’s top official for Africa policy, said diplomatic and intelligence officials believed that the Islamists could be trying to provoke an Ethiopian attack as a "rallying cry for support" to their side. The countries fought a war from 1977 to 1978 over the Ogaden, a contested area of eastern Ethiopia — and Somalia lost.
"If this thing goes to a military fight,” Ms. Frazer said, “it’s a bloodbath."
American officials helped push through a recent United Nations resolution authorizing peacekeepers from African countries to back up the Baidoa officials. The resolution lets the Baidoa government, but not the Islamists, bring in weapons despite a longstanding arms embargo.
The problem with that strategy, many analysts say, is that it misreads the Islamists’ power, rooted not so much in their military strength — a few hundred armed pickup trucks and a few thousand fighters — but in their popular support. The Islamists emerged several years ago as a network of clan-based courts that unified warring factions.
Ethiopia may have the strongest military in the region, trained by American advisers and complete with jet fighters, but attacking Islamist forces may only drive them underground, into a guerrilla insurgency.
American officials have said they are hoping that the moderates within the Islamic administration will prevail over hard-line, war-mongering elements. But if there ever was such a struggle, it is over.
Three months ago, Ibrahim Hassan Addou, the foreign minister for the Islamists and an American citizen of Somali descent, talked of sharing power and holding elections.
Now, like the others, he is talking war, in terms nearly indistinguishable from the most militant Islamic leaders. Moderates, he said, were backed into a corner by an American-led campaign to discredit and isolate the Islamic administration.
“Everybody was against us from the beginning, and now we have no choice but to fight,” he said. “What I don’t understand is why the whole world is trying to throw its weight behind a government that has been totally rejected by its own people.”
United Nations officials say they support the government in Baidoa because it is the most representative of the various clans in Somalia. But one side effect of the multi-clan approach has been ceaseless disputes between clan elders. Meanwhile, the Islamists have aggressively expanded their territory.
Many officials in Baidoa vehemently opposed calling on Ethiopian muscle, fearing a backlash. In the past some Somali clans have teamed up with Ethiopian forces to dominate other clans, ending in greater bloodshed. So when the idea of bringing Ethiopian soldiers to Baidoa was first proposed last year, it proved so divisive that it set off a brawl among officials — and it failed to pass.
“The problem with having Ethiopians defend us is that they make us look like the puppets that the Islamists accuse us of being,” said Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, the speaker of the parliament in Baidoa. Ethiopian officials insist that they have sent only a few hundred military advisers to Baidoa, but United Nation monitors and witnesses on the ground say several thousand Ethiopian infantry troops are digging in near the city.
Sporadic peace talks between Baidoa officials and the Islamists have produced little but broken promises. The only thing that seems to be delaying all-out war is the mutual recognition that a decisive victory is unlikely.
The Islamists are reluctant to march on Baidoa and trigger a crushing Ethiopian response, while the Ethiopians seem fearful of trying to storm the Islamists’ stronghold of Mogadishu, the city that claimed the lives of 18 American soldiers in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993.
A growing number of Democrats in Congress are urging the Bush administration to change course and deal with the Islamists for what they are: the power on the ground.
“The Islamists aren’t going away, so the sooner we talk to them, the better,” said Representative Donald M. Payne, the New Jersey Democrat who is expected to become the chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa when his party takes control of Congress in January.
In Mogadishu the Islamists are continuing their hearts-and-minds campaign, organizing neighborhood cleanups, delivering food to the needy and resuscitating old national institutions like the Supreme Court, which was given a fresh coat of paint and reopened in October.
Streets that were clogged with years of debris are now clear and bureaucracy is budding, with more rules and more paperwork, including forms at the airport that ask name, age, nationality and religion — Muslim or non-Muslim being the only choices.
All the talk of slaughtering Ethiopian invaders and their American sponsors, though, seems to have brought out a harsher side of the Islamic administration. Nearly every day, rings of people gather on Mogadishu’s streets to watch lashings, and the crowds cheer as leather whips cut canals into flesh. One Islamic leader in a town north of Mogadishu recently issued an edict threatening that anyone who did not pray five times a day would be beheaded.
“It’s black and white,” said the leader, Hussein Barre Rage. “The Koran says people must pray.”
Not long ago Somalia was a place where women wore skirts and men drank beer, and even today a large chunk of the population is quietly concerned about the absolutist direction the Islamists are heading in.
But the prospects of war with Ethiopia seem to have pushed many of these people solidly into the Islamic camp.
“I’m not into thought control,” said Dahir Abdillahi Hirsi, a pharmacist in Mogadishu. “But I hate Ethiopians even more.”
Source: New York Times, Dec 14, 2006