Correction to This Article
A Jan. 3 article incorrectly said that U.S. Navy vessels patrolling the East African coastline near Somalia had been dispatched from facilities in Djibouti. The ships are part of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain.

Meeting to Tackle Somalia's Need For Peacekeepers

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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Rapidly unfolding events in Somalia have opened a window of opportunity to establish a viable government there, according to the Bush administration and its European and African allies. But there is little optimism that the international political will and resources needed to exploit it will emerge before the window slams shut.

Diplomats from the United States and other nations in the Somalia Contact Group will meet today in Brussels to examine ways to quickly install an all-African peacekeeping force. The peacekeepers would replace Ethiopian troops whose lightning invasion ousted Islamic fundamentalist forces last week from Mogadishu. Also under discussion is an effort to persuade cooperative elements of the newly ensconced Transitional Federal Government to open unity talks with certain moderate leaders of the fundamentalist forces, which have been driven from southern Somalia.

The contact group -- which includes U.S., European and African representatives -- has discussed the need for African peacekeepers and a unity government for some time with little progress. Today's meeting of the six-month-old group will open with new urgency for action.

"The situation on the ground has changed dramatically, possibly for the better," said a European diplomat whose government is closely involved in the issue and who spoke on the condition of anonymity when discussing the sensitive negotiations. "The name of the game is how to make sure that the government establishes itself" to survive without Ethiopian military occupation, he said. "Somalis don't like the idea of Ethiopian troops manning the capital.

"On the other hand, if the Ethiopians withdraw all of a sudden," he said, "what's going to happen? There's a fine balance between maintaining and consolidating the government" and allowing feuding warlords on all sides of Somalia's political divide to reactivate their militias.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said yesterday that his troops will stay "for a few weeks," but he called on "the international community to deploy a peacekeeping force in Somalia without delay to avoid a vacuum and the resurgence of extremists and terrorists."

The Bush administration also sees the current upheaval as an opportunity to capture three senior al-Qaeda operatives who it says have been sheltered by a faction of the Somali Islamic fundamentalists. U.S. Navy ships have been dispatched from neighboring Djibouti to patrol the East African coastline for a possible escape as the fundamentalists and their militias have been pushed south to the Kenyan border. A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said that he had seen no intelligence to support earlier reports that legions of foreign fighters landed in Mogadishu last week to support the fundamentalists.

The official declined to comment on whether U.S. military personnel, sent to northern Kenya in recent months on humanitarian missions, are operating on the ground with Kenyan forces lining the 420-mile frontier. "That gets into some operational stuff," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject involves intelligence. "Clearly, we've got an embassy there, and very robust and very good relations with the Kenyans."

Any solution to Somalia's decades of chaos rests on untangling and soothing complicated domestic and regional enmities, as well as mustering broader cooperation and resources at a time of profound international war-weariness.

A plan to send African peacekeepers, approved last month by the African Union and the U.N. Security Council, has foundered on a lack of volunteers and resources to support them. "I wish I could be optimistic, but Somalia is tough, and everybody in the neighborhood knows it's tough," the counterterrorism official said.

Although Uganda has tentatively offered troops, it has balked over the uncertainty and danger of the mission, as well as over the lack of logistical support and airlift that only the United States is seen as able to supply. "We don't want to take the lead" in providing such support, the counterterrorism official said, "but we're willing to contribute."

One option on the table in Brussels, the European diplomat said, is to use an existing agreement between the European Union and NATO that "provides for military operations carried out by the E.U. using NATO assets." That provision would allow the utilization of U.S. airlift and intelligence -- which technically would be twice-removed -- under NATO and E.U. auspices. "We don't know if this can be done through NATO," the diplomat acknowledged. "I haven't seen many ideas yet on paper. This has happened so quickly over the holidays."

U.S. and European officials estimated that the situation is unlikely to remain stable for more than a few weeks.

Establishing a unity government is likely to prove difficult. In addition to their political differences, the transitional government in Mogadishu and the Islamic forces now on the run are separately backed by militias belonging to Somalia's two most powerful clans -- the Darod and the Hawiye. No government is likely to survive for long without representation from both, as well as from a bewildering array of divided sub-clans on each side.

As the fundamentalists were routed over the past week, many Hawiye militia groups abandoned them, at least temporarily, to wait and see which way the wind would blow.

"We think of the [Islamic] Courts as a broad spectrum of political actors in varying degrees of fundamentalism," the U.S. official said. "Those leaders who have allied themselves by choice with al-Qaeda are of concern to us. But we're not looking at the Courts as some grand enemy or threat. There are lots of variations.

"We would not be averse to some members of the Islamic Courts if they can cut a deal with the transitional government and be part of that," the official added.


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