By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 10, 2006
The Bush administration will convene an international meeting next week on political developments in Somalia, following an abrupt shift in policy this week after Islamists seized control of the Somali capital from U.S.-backed, warlord-led militias.
The formation of a "Somalia Contact Group" was announced yesterday by the State Department, which had long expressed concern inside the administration that a policy largely restricted to counter-terrorism priorities might prove counterproductive. On Wednesday, the administration indicated that it was open to discussions with the Islamists as long as they were prepared to seek a peaceful resolution and pledged not to allow Somalia to become an al-Qaeda haven.
The goal of the group's meeting, to be held in New York, is "to promote concerted action and coordination to support the Somalia transitional federal institutions, and so we are going to be working with other interested states and international organizations on this matter," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "We think it's the right time."
The decision to launch a multinational diplomatic initiative reflects a lack of immediately viable options in Somalia short of overt military engagement, and it appears to indicate a further resurgence of the State Department's voice in foreign policymaking under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
McCormack said the contact group will be open to "interested parties" from governments and international organizations, and suggested that "the U.N. would want to participate in this."
A United Nations spokesman said yesterday that Washington had provided few details on the initiative but that the proposed timing coincides with the return from Somalia of Francois Lonseny Fall, the U.N. representative who met with different factions this week. Representatives from the European Union -- which also expressed interest this week in talks with the Islamists -- are expected to attend. The U.S. delegation is to be headed by the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi E. Frazer.
A rethinking of U.S. policy was provoked by fast-moving events over the last several weeks in the chaotic country on the Horn of Africa.
Without a coherent government since 1991, and left largely to its own devices since the 1994 withdrawal of a U.S.-dominated U.N. military force, Somalia has been riven by turf wars among clan warlords and their well-armed militias. A transitional government established under U.N. auspices two years ago has proved incapable of control and was forced to retreat several months ago from Mogadishu, the capital, to Baidoa, 150 miles away.
U.S. interest in Somalia has long focused on the presumed presence there of a group of al-Qaeda operatives, believed to be led by Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Kenyan citizen also known as Harun Fazul. Indicted in absentia in the United States in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Fazul was on the U.S. "Most Wanted Terrorists" list issued immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Washington's concern grew over the past year with the expanding power of the Islamic Courts Union, a coalition of 11 autonomous, clan-based courts that have sought to bring order to southern Somalia through the imposition of Islamic law. As court-backed militias gradually became the country's most powerful fighting force, secular warlords who fashioned their own "anti-terror" coalition in opposition found that the Bush administration -- while officially backing the transition government in Baidoa -- was willing to provide clandestine financial support.
Although those in the Defense Department and the CIA favoring aid to the warlords prevailed, other administration officials argued that putting all U.S. support behind the warlords was unwise. The relationship between the al-Qaeda cell led by Fazul and the Islamic courts has always been unclear, said one senior official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We think that there are elements within this Islamist group that are providing refuge and support to this al-Qaeda leadership, but not the Islamic courts as a whole. We don't know that, and we don't believe that," the official said.
The takeover of Mogadishu by Islamic forces Monday brought the internal debate to a head. On Tuesday, after the Islamic Courts Union leadership issued an open letter to the international community to "categorically deny and reject any accusation that we are harboring any terrorists," and declared its desire to establish peace and "a friendly relationship" with the outside world, the administration decided to extend a tentative olive branch.
Washington now hopes that a new multinational contact group can shepherd an accommodation between the Islamists and the transition government. Awad Ashara, a member of the Somali parliament, told the Reuters news agency yesterday that a meeting between the two is in the works.
"The government will in the coming days be sending cabinet members, lawmakers as well as influential traditional elders to Mogadishu," Ashara said. "They will try to achieve reconciliation between the Islamic courts and the other groups."
Although Ashara said the government hopes to "work out voluntary disarmament" between the Islamists and the warlord-led militias, reports from outside the capital indicated that the warlords are gearing up to try to retake the city.