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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)

The situation unfolding in Somalia, a society of warring clans and sub-clans without a central government since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fell in 1991, is one in which diplomats, analysts and others involved tend to agree on one point: that war would be disastrous, threatening to destabilize a region of great strategic import not only to Africa but also to the United States, because of its proximity to the Middle East and Red Sea shipping lanes.

A triple car bombing at a checkpoint outside Baidoa last month heightened those fears, with the transitional government blaming the attack on al-Qaeda sympathizers within the Islamic Courts, which denied responsibility. Some analysts say that even if Ethiopia, which has a predominantly Christian army, initially trounces Islamic Courts fighters in a war, the movement's more radical members might retaliate with suicide bombings and other terrorist-style attacks in neighboring countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, where the United States has a significant military presence.

"I think if the ICU [Islamic Courts Union] suffers from defeat, it will only take months for them to regroup and it would strengthen them internally," said Matt Bryden, a consultant with the International Crisis Group, a policy research group. "If they are hit, there is a risk they would come back on steroids and pose a threat to the whole region."

Meles rejected that argument, saying the policy of dialogue and engagement has only bought the Islamic Courts movement time to expand its control.

"It surprises me that intelligent people at the dawn of the 21st century could claim that if you respond to terrorism with force, you spawn terrorism," he said. "But that if you appease them, you somehow tame them."

Since 1991, Somalia has held no fewer than 15 peace conferences aimed at cobbling together some sort of central government.

A U.S.-led attempt to stabilize the country led to the deaths of 18 American troops in an October 1993 battle depicted in the movie "Black Hawk Down." After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government was accused of bungling Somalia policy again by supporting warlords marketing themselves as an "anti-terrorism coalition," who generally terrorized Somalis who came to hate them.

The Islamic Courts, initially a grouping of local clerics, offered an alternative to that lawlessness, establishing an order based on Islamic law village by village, often persuading local militias to join them.

A recent U.N. study found that although the transitional government is supported by Ethiopia, among other countries, the Islamic Courts are receiving substantial assistance from Iran and Hezbollah, a claim some regional analysts contend is exaggerated.

Support for the Islamic movement by Eritrea, Ethiopia's neighbor and rival, appears to be a big part of Ethiopia's motivation. The Ethiopia-Eritrea proxy conflict in Somalia could ignite a regional conflagration and threaten U.S. anti-terrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa, according to a report due out this week from the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. It describes "a general unraveling of U.S. foreign policy" in the region and calls for the United States to exert stronger pressure on the two countries to implement a U.S.-brokered border agreement.

The U.N. study found that the Islamic Courts group has also raised money from various Arab states and the Somali diaspora. Relatively quickly, the movement established an efficient system of taxation and social welfare programs that enabled businesses to function and that seem to have earned support among Somalis, even if many in the traditionally moderate country are uneasy with the harsher aspects of Islamic law. At the same time, the movement has been backed by a more radical military wing called the shebab, made up of young men raised in a chaotic country awash with weapons, and indoctrinated with the ideology of holy war.

Both the United States and Ethiopia have accused the Islamic Courts of harboring suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and other attacks. Movement officials have denied that, accusing both countries of waging a propaganda war.

Diplomats and analysts differ sharply on whether Islamic Courts leaders such as Sheik Hassan Aweys are genuinely striving for legitimacy or cynically concealing a radical agenda.

"The Courts are not monolithic" said Mario Raffaelli, an Italian diplomat working in Somalia. "In my experience, the majority is not following this extreme approach."

Raffaelli said the Courts group has an incentive to negotiate even with a weak transitional government because doing so would provide the movement with legitimacy.

Some observers, including Ethiopians opposed to war, are convinced that the United States is tacitly giving a green light to Ethiopia to attack. That, they say, would amount to the worst U.S. policy blunder yet in Somalia. Beyene Petros, an opposition leader in Ethiopia's parliament, questioned the wisdom of a visit that Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, paid Meles in Ethiopia last week.

"If there is disapproval, you don't pay visits, right?" he said. "We used to see this call for restraint, but I have not seen that lately."

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.


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