By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 3, 2009
NAIROBI, Jan. 2 -- Ethiopian troops propping up Somalia's fragile transitional government began a partial withdrawal from the seaside capital of Mogadishu on Friday, a move that many Somalis and analysts say will probably touch off a vicious scramble for power among various Islamist factions and clan militias.
The Ethiopian government had promised to withdraw its troops from the volatile Horn of Africa nation by the end of 2008, and on Friday, at least 18 military trucks piled with mattresses, cooking pots and soldiers rolled away from a key base on the edge of Mogadishu, according to witnesses.
The base, at a strategic crossroads just outside the capital, was empty by the end of the day. But an estimated 3,000 Ethiopian troops still occupy at least six other key positions in Mogadishu. For many, the lingering question is what will happen once the pullout is complete.
"It's not good to predict a bleak future, but we see all the signs that different groups are preparing for war," said a peace activist in Mogadishu, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by the militias. "We are expecting a big change when the Ethiopians leave, but we don't know where we are heading."
With U.S. support, the Ethiopians invaded Somalia two years ago, ousting a relatively diverse Islamic movement that had briefly captured Mogadishu and installing in its place Somalia's first internationally recognized government since 1991.
But the Ethiopians -- Somalia's historic enemies -- and the fragile government headed by President Abdullahi Yusuf almost immediately faced a brutal insurgency of clan militias and Islamist fighters. An estimated 10,000 people have been killed, and more than 1 million are displaced across the drought-stricken country. Yusuf resigned Monday, conceding that he had been unable to unite the fragmented country, and the transitional government is on the verge of collapse.
The fiercest and most radical of the Islamist militias, known as the Shabab -- meaning "youth" in Arabic -- has taken over swaths of southern Somalia, using widespread anti-Ethiopian sentiment as a rallying cry.
Many analysts say the Shabab, which the United States has designated a terrorist organization, is gathering momentum, recruiting young, jobless men into relatively well-disciplined forces that have launched suicide bombings against the Ethiopian troops. But the militia is beginning to show signs of internal division. In the town of Merka, a group calling itself Ansaaru Summah has splintered off in recent days, and in the southern city of Kismaayo, there are Shabab factions loyal to four leaders.
The Shabab has gained support among Somalis, who tend to be moderate Muslims, mostly because its fighters have battled the Ethiopians. Some observers say that support will vanish after the Ethiopians have gone.
"All over Somalia, there is public anger against the Shabab these days," said the Mogadishu activist.
Several moderate Islamist factions and clan militias are trying to take advantage of that discontent and are lining up to fight the Shabab. The groups have been buying weapons and taking up strategic positions near Ethiopian bases in Mogadishu, as if waiting to fill the vacuum left by the Ethiopian withdrawal.
Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim contributed to this report.