Regional War May Loom in Africa

Government troops in Baidoa detain a fighter loyal to the Islamic Courts movement, which controls much of Somalia.
Government troops in Baidoa detain a fighter loyal to the Islamic Courts movement, which controls much of Somalia. (By Jerome Delay -- Associated Press)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 14, 2006

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Dec. 13 -- With the Ethiopian government saying it is technically at war with Somalia's Islamic Courts movement, and the movement having declared holy war against Ethiopia, there is fear that an all-out conflict in the Horn of Africa may be unavoidable.

In the past week, several skirmishes have broken out between militias loyal to Ethiopia and those loyal to the Council of Islamic Courts, the movement that has taken control of the southern region of the country, including Mogadishu, the capital.

The fighting has occurred around the southern town of Baidoa, seat of Somalia's fragile but internationally recognized transitional government. Ethiopia considers the interim government a buffer against Islamic Courts leaders who have long expressed desire to create a "Greater Somalia," including ethnically Somali portions of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Wednesday rejected a declaration by a leader of the Islamic movement that Ethiopia withdraw its troops or face war. Though the Ethiopian government has repeatedly denied having more than several hundred military trainers in Somalia, diplomats in the region estimate that at least 8,000 troops have poured in around Baidoa and that thousands more are gathering along the Somali border.

"This declaration is based on falsehoods," Meles said in an interview, adding that the movement, also known as the Islamic Courts Union, is "hellbent" on controlling all of Somalia. "Now, if the transitional government doesn't want our trainers, we're happy to withdraw them at any moment," he said.

The weak transitional government has made no such request.

For now, hopes for a peaceful resolution are pinned on a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted last week, authorizing deployment of an African Union force, excluding troops from neighboring states, to Baidoa. In theory, the resolution would remove Ethiopia from the volatile equation and encourage more moderate leaders within the Islamic movement to join the transitional government.

Some analysts, however, contend that the measure has already prompted the Islamic Courts to push toward Baidoa and will ultimately serve as a rallying point for the movement's more radical factions, which have said they would consider any African Union force a foreign invasion.

In any case, deployment could take months. The president of the transitional government has requested 8,000 African Union troops, though only one battalion of about 800 Ugandan troops is ready, according to African Union officials.

In question at the moment is whether the Islamic movement or Ethiopia will mount a full-fledged offensive before the African Union soldiers deploy, and whether the transitional government, which has spent much of its time exiled at the InterContinental Hotel in Nairobi, will simply disintegrate, leaving no internationally recognized government for the United Nations, or Ethiopia, to support.

"My feeling is that Ethiopia will go to war. . . . Their own security is at stake," a senior Kenyan diplomat said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. "Unfortunately, the [U.N.] resolution was sponsored by the United States, and it will be used by the Courts as a propaganda tool. But at least there's a window."

Besides fear of an Islamic government on its border, an increasingly authoritarian Ethiopian government is also concerned about radicalization of its own Muslim citizens, who now account for nearly 50 percent of the population. The government has accused the Islamic Courts of training and arming insurgent groups in the ethnically Somali region of Ethiopia called the Ogaden. The two countries have been to war over the area three times since Somalia's independence in 1960.

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