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Mistaken Entry Into Clan Dispute Led to U.S. Black Eye in Somalia

Islamic militiamen sit on a rifle-mounted pickup truck after taking control of a checkpoint near the Mogadishu weapons market. U.S. backing for secular warlords has increased public support for the militias, Somalis say.
Islamic militiamen sit on a rifle-mounted pickup truck after taking control of a checkpoint near the Mogadishu weapons market. U.S. backing for secular warlords has increased public support for the militias, Somalis say. (By Mohamed Sheikh Nor -- Associated Press)

Abukar Omar Adan was a devoutly Islamic and heavily armed clan elder with ties to the strict neighborhood religious courts that had brought a semblance of order to a city without a government.

His rival, Bashir Raghe, was a brash, younger man who had been a waste contractor with the U.S. military forces in Mogadishu before the United States pulled out.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Raghe became one of America's foremost allies in Somalia, receiving payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars for capturing and turning over terrorism suspects to U.S. officials, Somalis say.

Raghe strode through Mogadishu wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses on his head and a pistol strapped to each hip. And in the months leading up to the fighting in Mogadishu, he was seen using crisp, new $100 bills to buy machine guns and heavily armed pickup trucks.

In addition to his alliance with the Americans, Raghe had other strategic assets: He controlled Esaly Airport, a seaside strip of packed sand north of Mogadishu, and, at least nominally, the road leading there from the city.

The trouble began late last year when Adan paid $30,000 for land that straddled the airport road, intending to build a development including homes and warehouses.

Fearing the loss of control over lucrative airport traffic, Raghe objected, according to Adan's brother and son. After several verbal confrontations, the two sides began fighting in the open Jan. 13, moments after the U.S. intelligence officials -- most accounts put the number at four -- had landed at Esaly.

A few miles away, fleets of trucks mounted with machine guns exchanged fire. By the end of a battle lasting nearly six hours, Raghe's forces had killed seven of Adan's men and captured the land and four of his gun trucks -- a source of enduring frustration to Adan in a city where clout was measured mainly in terms of firepower.

Adan's son, Abdulkadir Abukar, 30, a key adviser to his father, said by phone that his family had no idea that Americans were nearby during the battle. But through the Abgal sub-clan's system of rapidly shared information, it soon became known.

Fearing a reaction by the Americans, Abukar and his uncle traveled to Nairobi, the region's business and diplomatic hub, to reassure U.S. officials that the gunfight was only about land. Abukar and his uncle also requested that their four captured gun trucks be returned.

But over the next several weeks, in numerous discussions in person and on the phone, U.S. officials accused Abukar and his family of being terrorists, he said. "They said, 'You were ready to kill us.' . . . They said, 'Your file will be put in Washington, and you will be recorded as a terrorist group.' "

Two other Somalis with direct knowledge of the meetings gave similar accounts. A third Somali, speaking on condition of anonymity, recounted a separate but similar conversation with a U.S. intelligence official who said of the officers at the airstrip on Jan. 13: "They were ambushed. This was a terrorist who was trying to kill American officers."

Back in Mogadishu, the fight was seen differently -- as a sign of growing belligerence by the United States and the warlords it backed.

In the months leading up to the battle, Somalis say, officials of the Islamic courts had grown increasingly nervous as they watched Raghe and other suddenly flush warlords add men, guns and trucks to their arsenal. Surging demand caused the price of AK-47 assault rifles at Mogadishu's main market to more than quadruple, from $120 to $580. The price of gunmen went from $70 a month to $300, Somalis say.

"All of a sudden they were buying weapons," said Khadija O. Ali, founder of a Mogadishu women's group and a graduate student at George Mason University, speaking in Nairobi. "All of the sudden there were planes coming and the Americans were meeting only with" the warlords.

Anti-Americanism, stoked by the war in Iraq, intensified as supporters of the Islamic courts spread word that the United States was backing the warlords, whom many residents of Mogadishu say operated with impunity as their gunmen terrorized the lawless city, raping, robbing and killing as they pleased.

Public opinion gradually coalesced in favor of the Islamic courts and their militias, Somalis say. Prominent businessmen contributed men, trucks and guns to the cause of driving out the warlords. And so on Feb. 18, when Raghe and several other warlords announced the formation of an "anti-terrorism coalition" -- featuring the backing of even more American money -- the reaction was swift. Battles broke out the same day in a struggle now seen as being between homegrown Islamic militias and a hated U.S. proxy force.

A month later, on the morning of March 22, Adan's forces -- backed now by the Islamic militias -- attacked Raghe's position at the disputed land. This time, despite the enhanced support of the U.S. government for the warlords, Raghe was routed in fighting that left dozens of his men dead.

The battles between Adan and Raghe were viewed in Mogadishu as the crucial first fights between Islamic militias and secular, U.S.-backed warlords.

By the time the fighting ended in early June, more than 300 Somalis had been killed. Aweys, long a target of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, now heads the Islamic militias that rule Mogadishu.

The U.S. effort failed, Somalis said, because it focused only on seizing terrorism suspects, not attempting to improve living conditions in one of the world's poorest countries.

"It will radicalize the people," said Ali, a naturalized U.S. citizen. "Unless I am also safe, you are not going to be safe. That's the message the Americans must learn. They cannot fight this alone."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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