By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 6, 2007
MOGADISHU, Somalia, Jan. 5 -- The revived Somali national army assembled here Friday in the sand-blown yard of the former parliament, a hollowed-out building splashed with grenade blasts and scrawled with apocalyptic graffiti.
About 1,000 men sat in the sun, soldiers who had been inactive for 15 years, old men with graying beards wearing whatever shade of camouflage they found at the market or dug out of storage. Few had boots; most wore leather loafers, sandals or thin-soled tennis shoes. They squinted at the newly ascendant prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, who was swept into power last week on the strength of Ethiopian soldiers now pointing machine guns at the crowd.
"As prime minister, I say let us go back to our national interests," said Gedi, a former veterinarian. "This capital of Somalia is not for clans or tribes. It's for all Somalis. Is this clear? Will I repeat it, or have you got it?"
They all stood to sing the Somali national anthem, with many soldiers simply moving their lips, having forgotten the words. When it was over, 100 or so civilians heckled the new force -- "Traitors!" -- and Gedi zipped off in a convoy.
Even at such orchestrated events in Mogadishu, it is unclear who is in control, and the same could be said of Somalia itself.
Candidates for the title include the heavily armed Ethiopian forces stationed at strategic points around the city, without which Gedi's government would have failed to take the country from the popular Islamic Courts movement. There is Gedi himself, who leads an internationally recognized government but is perceived by many Somalis as a puppet of the Ethiopians.
The Ethiopians, in turn, are perceived as closely tied to the United States, which has expressed concern that Somalia could become a stronghold for terrorists. There is the fractious parliament, which Gedi is set to meet with in the next few days and whose members include warlords formerly backed by the United States, and others tied to webs of clans, sub-clans and sub-sub-clans, most with their own militias.
And somewhere in the oceanside city of sand, goats, poetry and barbed wire, an estimated 3,500 former Islamic Courts fighters who shed their uniforms are thought to be awaiting instructions to attack the Ethiopian troops. On Friday, al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, posted a message on the Internet calling on the fighters and other Muslims to attack the invading "crusader" force, Ethiopia, which has a government and army dominated by Christians and a population that is nearly half Muslim.
All week, pamphlets circulating in the city have warned residents to stay away from Ethiopian soldiers.
"This is a funny question," said Gedi, when asked who is controlling Somalia. "The transitional federal government. It's a fully inclusive and representative government. This is my commitment, this is my responsibility as a prime minister to lead the Somali people."
Gedi's government is frail, however. He has not reached out to any moderate Islamic Courts leaders, widely credited with bringing security to Mogadishu, choosing to provide amnesty instead of inclusion in the government. A process of disarming the city is going badly, and Gedi said this week that he has only half the security forces he needs. Although the United States pledged $40 million in aid Friday, the government has practically no revenue to pay soldiers and set up ministries, or to assist thousands whose farms were ruined by recent floods.
Somalia's parliament, where representation is based on clan and sub-clan, includes many of the old warlords who had organized as an "anti-terrorism coalition" funded by the U.S. government, and otherwise made money by setting up roadblocks across the country to extract bribes. They were defeated by the Islamic Courts in June and are now seeking to wield power again, with some, such as Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, growing impatient with Gedi, whom they accuse of favoring his own people.
"They don't have any real power or any real authority," Qanyare said of the government. "My people want a government of national unity, not a government of certain clans, and that is what this government looks like."
Qanyare, a charismatic man known as the founder of the anti-terrorism coalition, sat in his armed compound on a hill at the city's crumbled edge, a place that seemed more like a military position than a home. He is from a sub-clan that is a rival of Gedi's.
A fleet of trucks was parked behind a wall, and militiamen armed with AK-47 assault rifles clustered at the door. Qanyare wore a bright yellow shirt with an abstract print, his hair wild and gray, and compared the prime minister and the various clans to a man with many unequally loved wives.
"If you don't love them, they will get a divorce," said Qanyare, adding that, at the moment, he is reading a book titled "Global Intelligence."
Ordinary Somalis are not sure who is in charge: the Ethiopians, the government, the warlords or the exiled Islamic Courts leaders and their underground fighters. Asked who he thought was wielding the most power, Amir Sheihk Elmi, who is in the cellphone business, said, "Allah."
Security continues to be the main concern in Mogadishu, where many residents fear that without an effective government force, authority in the country is reverting to the old collection of warlords and freelance militiamen.
Former Islamic Courts fighters in the city are hoping to harness those fears, along with resentment toward the Ethiopian troops, to reassert control.
"We are in Mogadishu, and we will challenge anyone to get security back," said Ali, a 21-year-old former fighter who declined to be identified further.
Late Friday afternoon, Ali said he had not heard about Zawahiri's Internet message. But he said that "shebab" fighters -- the young volunteer core of the Islamic Courts militia thought to be the most serious fighters -- were in "full contact" with Islamic Courts leaders who had fled the city last week. Asked whether he had a weapon, Ali shrugged and said insouciantly: "I have an AK-47 at home."
"When I hear about disarmament, I laugh," he said. "Who is supposed to take the guns? Who will be doing this?"
Asked who was in control of Somalia, he said without hesitation, "Sheik Sharif," referring to Sharif Ahmed, a top Islamic Courts leader reportedly among those on the run along the Somali coast.
The United States and Ethiopia have accused the Islamic Courts leaders of harboring three suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and of cooperating with al-Qaeda. Intelligence analysts disagree over the extent to which al-Qaeda has influenced leaders in the Islamic movement, if at all, and whether the three terrorism suspects were in hiding in Somalia or being sheltered.
On Friday, U.S. Navy warships patrolled off the Somali coast to prevent suspects from escaping by sea. And Ethiopian troops were preparing for a major attack on Ras Kamboni, a town near the Kenyan border that is thought to be the last stronghold of fleeing Islamic Courts fighters.