Leader Says Somalia's Plight Is Urgent

Sharif Ahmed expressed support for the Obama administration's first airstrike in Somalia, which killed a top al-Qaeda operative.
Sharif Ahmed expressed support for the Obama administration's first airstrike in Somalia, which killed a top al-Qaeda operative. (By Khalil Senosi -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

The president of war-torn Somalia said Friday that he urgently needs help to beat back an insurgency linked to al-Qaeda, adding that he has received only a fraction of the $200 million pledged at a U.N.-sponsored donors conference last spring to support his fragile government's security forces.

Sharif Ahmed also expressed support for the Obama administration's first airstrike in Somalia, a daring helicopter raid last month that killed one of the country's top al-Qaeda operatives. But, in an interview in his suite at the Willard Intercontinental hotel, Ahmed said such operations had to be supplemented by other aid if the extremists are to be defeated.

"The people fighting us are affiliated with al-Qaeda," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "Whenever the assistance or support to the government is delayed, the problems tend to increase."

During her recent trip to Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met the 45-year-old president, who took office in January, and said his moderate Islamist government was "the best hope we've had in quite some time for a return to stability" in Somalia. The country has been without a functioning government since 1991, and 14 attempts to establish state authority since then have failed.

But Ahmed's government nearly fell this year after an offensive launched in May by Islamist militias led by al-Shabab, which the U.S. government considers a terrorist group. The United States rushed in about 40 tons of ammunition and weapons and more than $1 million in cash.

Ahmed said he pressed officials in Washington and at U.N. meetings in New York in recent days for thousands more peacekeepers in addition to the 5,300 African Union troops in Somalia. He also requested more economic, humanitarian and military assistance. U.S. officials told him they were studying the requests, he said.

Ahmed said he had expected a boost in resources from a U.N.-sponsored donor conference in April, but that "very little of that money materialized" -- less than $5 million. He urged the U.S. government to help him collect on the pledges, he said.

The U.S. government is one of Somalia's largest donors, providing about half its food aid and roughly $180 million so far this year in humanitarian aid, according to State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. He said that Washington had pledged $26 million at the donors conference, but that it directed the contribution to the peacekeeping force. The United States separately funds training of Somalia's military.

Analysts have said in recent months that al-Shabab appears to be weakened by internal divisions and a loss of support among Somalis, who traditionally subscribe to a moderate form of Islam. Ahmed said, however, that he fears the group is strengthening, noting that it recently proclaimed victory over a rival Islamist militia in the southern port city of Kismaayo. Government forces control only a sliver of the country.

Ahmed said it was "appropriate" for the U.S. military to launch the helicopter strike last month that killed Saleh Ali Nabhan, allegedly one of two top al-Qaeda leaders in Somalia. The Somali government wants to get "al-Qaeda out of our country by any means necessary," he said.

After the strike, al-Shabab attacked peacekeeping forces in what it called retaliatory strikes and released a video showing its members pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. The group is largely Somali and focused on the domestic conflict but has al-Qaeda instructors, analysts say.

A senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities said this week that the administration is planning an interagency policy review on Somalia soon. The U.S. government has encouraged African nations to provide more peacekeepers, he said, but "with the level of intensity of fighting going on . . . there has been a great reluctance."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company