Insurgents Briefly Capture Key Town in Show of Defiance

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 27, 2008

NAIROBI, March 26 -- Islamist insurgents battling for control of Somalia briefly seized a strategic town Wednesday, the latest sign of how feeble the country's internationally backed transitional government has become.

The takeover of Jowhar, about 55 miles north of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, was the most recent in a series of advances by a radical Islamist faction of a broader insurgency against the transitional government and the Ethiopian military that installed it more than a year ago.

In the past month, the faction -- known as al-Shabab and recently designated a terrorist organization by the United States -- has briefly asserted control of at least six towns in southern Somalia, a show of force underlining the fact that the Somali government has little control over the Horn of Africa nation.

"They go in and expel whatever rudimentary authorities are there, then go back to the bush and go to another unassuming village or town," said Abdirizak Adam Hassan, an adviser to Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf. "To my mind, they are saying: 'Although you defeated u s, we are still a formidable force. We are undiminished, and we are here to stay.' "

Since late 2006, when the Ethiopians intervened to oust an Islamist movement, the political and humanitarian crisis in Somalia has deteriorated.

On Tuesday, 40 aid groups delivered a statement to the U.N. Security Council, which is discussing Somalia this week, warning of an "impending humanitarian catastrophe."

An estimated 20,000 people a month are being chased from their homes by continued fighting, mostly in Mogadishu, which has lost half its population. In all, nearly 1 million Somalis are displaced, the statement says.

Somalia's national army, which began last year with about 20,000 troops, has dwindled to about 2,000, many of whom spend much of their time looting the homes and businesses of ordinary Somalis.

Soldiers who have not been paid in months are deserting, weapons in hand, and returning to their clans or joining the insurgency.

"It's a revolving door," Hassan said.

The situation has left the United Nations and foreign diplomats searching for ways to reach a settlement between the Somali government and a growing political opposition composed of Islamist leaders, intellectuals, businessmen and others united in their belief that Yusuf's Ethiopian backers must go.

"What is important in my mind is a new approach," said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the U.N. secretary general's Somalia envoy. "We have abandoned Somalia for the last 15 years. This cannot last."

So far, however, the United Nations has been reluctant to become too deeply involved in Somalia.

The Security Council is considering the deployment of a 27,000-member peacekeeping force after a power-sharing agreement is reached.

Many analysts say, however, that the United Nations, already struggling to muster a force to deal with the crisis in Sudan's western Darfur region, would have trouble gathering that many troops.

Critics of the idea also say a neutral military force is needed before political negotiations in order to establish security and replace the Ethiopian troops, thus creating the conditions for peace ahead of a peacekeeping force.

"It's impossible now to wait for peace," said a Somali doctor who has been treating the wounded in Mogadishu, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. "The United Nations needs to contemplate making the peace."

A second proposal for such a force -- an 8,000-member coalition -- has not garnered much support, either.

Even a proposal to provide U.N. security for Ould-Abdallah during his visits to Somalia has not gained much traction.

The United States, meanwhile, has remained focused mostly on counterterrorism goals, which critics say is working against the longer-term project of nation-building because it provides a cause for more radical elements in the Somali opposition.

The United States this month conducted its fourth airstrike inside Somalia aimed at al-Qaeda associates whom U.S. intelligence officials blame for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

The strikes have failed to hit any of their intended targets, however, and have increased resentment toward the United States among Somalia's moderate Muslims.

Pentagon and State Department officials are debating whether to shift U.S. support from the transitional government to the relatively stable region of Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but has yet to receive international recognition.

In recent weeks, the State Department dispatched a team of contractors to Somaliland to explore the idea of establishing a military presence at an old airstrip there, according to members of the team interviewed in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Somaliland's government, eager for recognition, welcomed the possibility.

"If the U.S. wishes to have a military presence in Somaliland territory, we will welcome them and accept them," said Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin. "There are discussions, and we agreed to work together toward mutual ends. But things have not materialized so far."

Somalis eager to resolve the conflict are not optimistic that any of the plans on the table will amount to much.

A peace activist who shares a name with the Somali president, Abdullahi Yusuf, said international support for the transitional government -- and, by extension, the Ethiopian troops backing it -- is making the situation worse.

"The occupation is coming not only from Ethiopia but from the international superpowers, and that is making everything difficult," he said from Mogadishu. "The solutions are difficult, and the problems are increasing day by day. Everything is getting worse."

Special correspondent Kassahun Addis in Hargeysa, Somaliland, contributed to this report.

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