By Mohamed Olad Hassan
Friday, July 21, 2006; A13
MOGADISHU, Somalia, July 20 -- Hundreds of Ethiopian troops in armored vehicles rolled into Somalia on Thursday to protect their allies in this country's virtually powerless government from Islamic militiamen who control the capital.
The move could give the interim Somali government its only chance of curbing the Islamic militia's increasing power. But Ethiopia's incursion could also be just the provocation the militia needs to build public support for a guerrilla war.
"We will declare jihad if the Ethiopian government refuses to withdraw their troops from Somalia," said Sharif Ahmed, a top Islamic official.
The neighboring countries are traditional enemies, although Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf has asked Ethiopia for its support. Thousands of Somalis have taken to the streets in recent weeks to denounce accounts of Ethiopian troop movement along the border.
Somalia has been without an effective central government since warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on one another, carving much of the country into armed camps ruled by violence and clan law.
The government, which includes warlords linked to the violence of the past, was established with the support of the United Nations to help Somalia emerge from anarchy. But the body wields no real power, has no military and operates only in Baidoa, about 100 miles east of the Ethiopian border.
The Islamic militia stepped into the power vacuum in recent months, seizing the capital of Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia. On Wednesday, the militia reached within 20 miles of Baidoa, prompting the government to go on high alert.
The militia began pulling back Thursday as more than 400 Ethiopian troops entered Baidoa. The soldiers smiled and waved to residents before setting up their camp, according to witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The Ethiopians, wearing their national military uniforms, also deployed at the airport outside Baidoa and set up a compound near the president's home in the city, witnesses said.
The United States has accused the Islamic militia of having links to al-Qaeda that include sheltering suspects in the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In a recent Internet posting, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has urged Somalis to support the militia and warned countries not to send troops there.
Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in 1993 and 1996 to quash Islamic fighters attempting to establish a religious government.
In the absence of his own force, Yusuf, a staunch secular leader who has condemned radical Islam, has apparently chosen to rely on Ethiopia for protection. But anti-Ethiopia sentiment still runs high in much of the country, and Yusuf's reliance on Ethiopia might hurt his legitimacy.