“How do you tell who is the enemy?” said Maj. Paddy Akunda, a spokesman for the A.U. force, gazing up suspiciously. “It’s difficult to know who is wearing a suicide vest.”
Al-Shabab suddenly retreated from most of the Somali capital a month ago, leaving an uneasy calm in the city. A.U. and Somali government forces can now venture into the market, where the al-Qaeda-linked militia taxed merchants to fund its operations.
But hardly anyone is declaring victory over the militia. Al-Shabab still controls large swaths of territory in Somalia and has vowed to retake Mogadishu. Many Somalis fear that the relentless civil war in their country has entered a new phase in which an urban conflict with demarcated front lines has turned into one with none, fueled by attacks by al-Shabab sympathizers who easily blend into the population.
The week Akunda’s troops visited Bakara market, there were five attempted car bombings or grenade attacks, A.U. commanders said.
“The front lines are no longer visible in Mogadishu,” Akunda said. “It’s more complicated now.”
Amid power vacuum, a ‘road map’
The latest chapter in Somalia’s 20-year-old civil war comes as famine — the worst here in a generation — has killed tens of thousands. Mogadishu is filled with dozens of settlements of displaced people and long food lines, and the city’s hospitals are overwhelmed by starving children in desperate need of medical care.
During the past three years, al-Shabab grew strong enough to strike targets close to the seat of government, paralyzing it. But why the Islamist militia, which once controlled 90 percent of Mogadishu, left the city seemingly overnight remains unclear. Some blame internal divisions; others say the A.U. forces, trained by Western military personnel paid by the United States, pushed the militia out with multiple offensives this year. Analysts also say funding from al-Shabab’s Arab sympathizers has declined since the uprisings this year in the Middle East and North Africa.
Whatever the reason, A.U. officials and their international backers are hopeful that Somalia’s weak transitional government can take advantage of the power vacuum. Under pressure from international donors, the country’s political and clan leaders agreed this month to a “road map” to draft a new constitution, reform parliament and take other steps toward building an effective government.
“Al-Shabab has served as a catalyst,” said Christian Manahl, the U.N. deputy special representative for Somalia. “It has helped bring together a number of parties and clans who have been fighting each other bitterly for years.”
The militia’s decision to ban international aid from entering southern Somalia, the famine’s epicenter, also has “delivered a blow to the militia’s credibility” among ordinary Somalis, he said. Fighters have stopped people from fleeing their areas, often at gunpoint, calling the U.N. declaration of famine exaggerated.