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Clinton Offers Assurances To Somalis
NAIROBI, Kenya, August 8, 2009 — Somalia’s beleaguered transitional government received desperately needed support on Thursday as Secretary of State Hillary praised its president as “the best hope we’ve had for some time,” then strongly warned Eritrea to stop supporting insurgents in the country.
Mrs. Clinton met with Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, elected Somalia’s president in January, for more than an hour. She promised more aid, training and equipment, in addition to the millions of dollars’ worth of weapons the United States has recently shipped to his government.
“We need to be there to help them deliver the results of stability to the people of Somalia, who have suffered for so long,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Sheik Sharif can use the help. His moderate Islamist government controls no more than a few city blocks in a country the size of Texas, with extremist Islamist groups, like the Shabaab, in charge of much of the rest.
Mrs. Clinton said the battle for Somalia, which has been the lawless home to Islamist extremists, terrorists, gun runners, drug smugglers, teenage gunmen and even modern-day pirates for the past 18 years, is deeply connected to American interests.
“No doubt that Al Shabaab wants to obtain control over Somalia and use it as a base to influence and infiltrate surrounding countries,” she said. “If Al Shabab were to obtain a haven in Somalia which could then attract Al Qaeda and other terrorist actors, it would be a threat to the United States.”
Thursday was the second full day of Mrs. Clinton’s seven-nation Africa tour, intended to shore up support for America’s allies on the continent and to give Mrs. Clinton, who has played a relatively subdued role early in the Obama administration, an opportunity to put her stamp on American foreign policy.
She warned of unspecified consequences for Eritrea if it continued what she said was its support for Al Shabaab and its efforts to destabilize Somalia. “It’s long past time for Eritrea to cease and desist its support for Al Shabaab,” she said. “We intend to take action if they do not cease.”
American leaders have made this threat before, though usually not in such direct language. Eritrea continues to deny any links to Somali militants, though that is hard to verify, as Eritrea is a highly secretive, tightly controlled nation with few allies.
Sheik Sharif seemed to bask in the attention. He stood riveted at a lectern next to Mrs. Clinton at an end-of-the-day news conference, wearing a crisp blue suit, an Islamic prayer hat and a lapel pin of joined Somali and American flags.
Before saying goodbye, he vigorously shook Mrs. Clinton’s hand — which caught the eye of one Somali journalist, who asked the president if that was religiously forbidden.
“No, no,” Sheik Sharif said and flashed a nervous grin. “Next question?”
American officials are clearly hoping that Sheik Sharif, a former religious teacher who rose to popularity in Somalia by helping rescue kidnapped children, will emerge as the man who can finally put this bullet-pocked country back together.
An aide to Mrs. Clinton described him as “intelligent, thoughtful and honest.”
The aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that Sheik Sharif’s greatest strength was, in a way, also his greatest weakness.
“He’s not a warlord,” the aide said. “So he’s had to work harder to bring together a security force. But he’s shown the ability to lead. And he’s shown the ability to survive.”
Mrs. Clinton’s trip has been the usual mix of meetings, speeches and quick, tightly scripted visits with everyday people. On Thursday morning, she toured the site where the American Embassy to Kenya was destroyed in 1998 by a huge truck bomb, in an attack later claimed by Al Qaeda. The attack leveled several buildings in downtown Nairobi, killing more than 200 people and wounding thousands, mostly impoverished Kenyans. Many people were blinded by flying glass.
Mrs. Clinton quietly laid a wreath at the foot of a plaque commemorating the people killed that day, and she told a group of Kenyan survivors, including an old blind man leaning on a cane, “We will continue to work with you.” Many victims have complained that the United States abandoned them after the attack.
One boy, Michael Macharia, 14, trailed closely behind Mrs. Clinton for most of her visit to the bomb site. Both his parents were working in the same building that day and were killed together when the bomb exploded. Mrs. Clinton said that Michael, who is being raised by his grandparents, was doing well in school and that she would tell President Obama about “his incredible character.”
Michael bowed his head bashfully, and later, when asked how it felt to be recognized by the American secretary of state, said, “It’s good.”
Mrs. Clinton, seeming to grow increasingly frustrated with Kenya’s leaders, said that if the Kenyan government refused to set up a tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators of last year’s election-driven bloodshed, the International Criminal Court at The Hague would get involved.
“I have urged that the Kenyan government find the way forward themselves,” she said. “But if not, then the names turned over to the I.C.C. will be opened, and an investigation will begin.”
In July, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, handed a sealed envelope with a list of prime suspects to the International Criminal Court. The court has also recently threatened to intervene if Kenyan leaders decide to continue the country’s stubborn history of impunity.
More than 1,000 people were killed around the country when the disputed December 2007 presidential election set off ethnic and political fighting. Initially, much of the violence seemed like spontaneous outrage vented along ethnic lines, though later it became evident that it had been at least partly organized by local leaders and village elders, and possibly by higher authorities.
Source: New York Times, August 7, 2009