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Somali Reconciliation Distant Hope, Talks Needed
By C. Bryson Hull
NAIROBI, Feb 25, 2007 (Reuters) - Save for Ethiopian soldiers, Somalia's interim government seems to have few friends in the capital Mogadishu.
Nearly every day, its soldiers and their well-trained allies suffer rocket, mortar and gun attacks. They blast back with artillery and invariably civilians are killed in the crossfire.
The government blames the insurgency on Islamists it defeated with Ethiopian help in a two-week war over the New Year. Thousands caught in the battle for political supremacy have fled the daily violence.
Until Mogadishu can be secured and a reconciliation process started, little will change, analysts and diplomats say.
One European diplomat points out that talks created relative peace in the self-governed Somaliland and Puntland regions, and they are the way forward in Mogadishu.
"It is the most important thing because this is how Somali society works. You sit down under a tree and you sort yourselves out. It is the only thing that has not been tried," the diplomat said.
President Abdillahi Yusuf's government is the 14th attempt at establishing national authority in Somalia since 1991, when it fell rapidly into anarchy after the toppling of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre.
One hangover of the Siad Barre days is the mistrust between major clans which the former dictator exacerbated under a divide-and-rule strategy.
Since Barre's fall, clan interests have overriden Somalia's usually strong nationalism and manifested themselves in opposition that kept the government out of Mogadishu.
Members of the city's influential Hawiye clan backed the Islamist takeover of Mogadishu and warlords who controlled it until the military-religious movement swept them out in June.
Some diplomats say satisfying the Hawiye, whose leaders disagreed with Ali Mohamed Gedi's appointment as prime minister, is a tall order and unlikely to happen because of the government's self-preservation instincts.
"There has never been a reconciliation conference that has not resulted in change of top leadership," a Western diplomat said, speaking of Somali history since Barre's ouster.
"It's just a question of whether the government can be inclusive enough and can the Hawiye feel they have a role."
The government is planning a national reconciliation conference, although the date has repeatedly slipped, that would deal only with social issues. It argues the peace process that gave birth to the government was the political reconciliation.
The European diplomat said the government must first establish real security in Mogadishu. "If they cannot, then this reconciliation conference cannot take place there. And it must."
Taming Mogadishu has been the holy grail for every attempt at government since 1991 and only the insurgent Islamists succeeded in stabilizing the capital during its six months in power, through a harsh version of Islamic law.
The government is building its forces and admits it needs outside help. Ethiopia is supposed to withdraw after a proposed 8,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force arrives.
So far, that force has only about half the troops pledged, and their deployment dates keep slipping.
Many believe the AU will be hard-pressed to tame the capital given its ineffectiveness in its maiden peacekeeping mission in Sudan's Darfur. One military expert who tracks Somalia said the AU deployment could make matters worse.
"You put them in there and it will just give the fundamentalists more motivation to fight underground. You will see growing regional support.
"We have a Baghdad in Somalia and it's only beginning," he said.