Ethiopia Finds Itself Ensnared in Somalia

Troops patrol Mogadishu on a truck with an antiaircraft gun. The Somali premier declared heavy fighting over yesterday, even as explosions continued.
Troops patrol Mogadishu on a truck with an antiaircraft gun. The Somali premier declared heavy fighting over yesterday, even as explosions continued. (By Mohamed Abdulle Hassan Siidi -- Associated Press)

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 27, 2007

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Four months after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared his own "war on terror" against an Islamic movement in Somalia, Ethiopia remains entangled in a situation that analysts and critics are comparing to the U.S. experience in Iraq.

Though Meles proclaimed his military mission accomplished in January, thousands of Ethiopian troops remain in the Somali capital, where they have used attack helicopters, tanks and other heavy weapons in a bloody campaign against insurgents that in recent weeks has killed more than 1,000 people, mostly civilians, and forced half of the city's population to flee.

On Thursday, the Ethiopian-backed Somali prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, declared that three weeks of heavy fighting was over, a statement tempered by the mortar blasts that continued to boom in the distance, witnesses said.

Meanwhile, a political crisis seems to be worsening, as the Somali transitional government, steadfastly supported by the United States, faces a swell of criticism for ignoring concerns of the city's dominant Hawiye clan, whose militias form the core of the insurgency and who are motivated not by the ideology of jihad, but power.

"It's just exactly like the Americans in Iraq," said Beyene Petros, a member of the Ethiopian Parliament and an early critic of the invasion. "I don't see how this was a victory. It really was a futile exercise."

The United States, which had accused Somalia's Islamic Courts movement of being hijacked by extremist ideologues, followed Ethiopia's invasion with airstrikes aimed at three suspects in the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, along with certain Islamic Courts leaders accused of having terrorist ties.

Four months later, however, none of those targets has been killed or captured, and the U.S. airstrikes are confirmed to have killed only civilians, livestock and a smattering of Islamic fighters on the run who were never accused of any crime.

More than 200 FBI and CIA agents have set up camp in the Sheraton Hotel here in Ethiopia's capital and have been interrogating dozens of detainees -- including a U.S. citizen -- picked up in Somalia and held without charge and without attorneys in a secret prison somewhere in this city, according to Ethiopian and U.S. officials who say the interrogations are lawful.

U.S. and Ethiopian officials say they have netted valuable information from some of the 41 detainees, who are being brought before a court whose proceedings are closed to the public.

Others have been quietly released, however, and human rights groups are criticizing the joint operation as a kind of "decentralized Guantanamo" in the Horn of Africa .

Ethiopian officials declined to be interviewed on the subject of Somalia, and a general blackout of information about the war prevails in the capital. Opposition members of Parliament complain that they have not been informed how many Ethiopian soldiers have been killed, how much the war is costing per day or how the government is paying for it.

There is also a sense here that while the invasion served Meles's own domestic interests, Ethiopia was also doing a job on behalf of the United States and is being left with a financial and military mess.


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