Somali Peace Conference Begins Amid Violence

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 20, 2007

NAIROBI, July 19 -- The first full day of Somalia's much-delayed reconciliation conference opened Thursday in the broken capital of Mogadishu with faint hopes, much quarreling and a barrage of mortar explosions not too far away.

Inside the conference hall, many of the 700 or so delegates flinched at the blasts, even as they tried to focus on a sprawling agenda that included organizing national elections.

Outside, at least an equal number of Ethiopian and Somali government troops patrolled the streets, hunting for insurgents who have been waging an urban war against the Somali transitional government and its Ethiopian backers for most of the year.

The reconciliation conference is intended to be another step toward establishing a functioning central government in a country that has been without one since 1991. It is one of 15 attempts to reconcile Somalia's complex matrix of clans, sub-clans and political interests, and the first to be held on Somali soil.

Still, the government of Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf, backed by the United States, has been criticized for excluding key opposition groups, namely those associated with an Islamic movement that Ethiopian and Somali government troops in December chased out of Mogadishu and several other key towns where it had briefly held power.

Leaders and supporters of the exiled Islamic movement -- which includes a militant wing waging the insurgency as well as civil society leaders and diaspora groups who disavow violence -- are holding their own reconciliation conference later this year.

"Between whom is this reconciliation?" asked Soufi Mohamed, a history professor at Mogadishu University who is closely following the current conference. "The main actors are out of this reconciliation."

At least 600 delegates did not show up Thursday. Those who arrived at the hall were frisked upon entry and told by nervous security officials not to use cellphones inside or fidget in their pockets.

After Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi gave an opening speech about restoring Somalia's reputation in the world, several mortars exploded in succession, causing a scene of chaos about 300 yards from the conference hall. At least five children were killed in the attacks, residents told news services.

As the day went on, various clan leaders argued about whether they were properly represented and about money. The transitional government has received some of the $32 million it requested from donors to support the two-month conference, and much of it is being doled out to the clans in increments of $50 per day, per delegate.

Gedi has complained that many donors that back his government have failed to follow through with their financial pledges.

Despite the criticism, Western diplomats and some Somalis hope that with even a modestly successful conference, the country might avoid collapsing in on itself again.

Besides arguing, the delegates and other leaders on Thursday began dividing themselves into committees, subcommittees and sub-subcommittees devoted to organizing the 2009 elections, for instance, and to settling clan disputes dating back decades.

Still, there is widespread concern that without key opposition leaders, the efforts will be futile.

"They're not hitting the nail on the head," said one civil society leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared that the government might retaliate. "They are solving a problem now which is not the real problem."

Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim in Mogadishu contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company