Attack at graduation ceremony kills 19 in Somali capital

Map: Suicide bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia
Map of Mogadishu, Somalia detailing the location of a suicide bombing on December 3, 2009
By Gene Thorp - The Washington Post
By Stephanie McCrummen
Friday, December 4, 2009

NAIROBI -- A man dressed in a black burqa blew himself up at a graduation ceremony of doctors in the Somali capital of Mogadishu on Thursday, killing 19 people, including parents, students and three government ministers.

The suicide attack is the worst blow in months to the feeble, U.N.- and U.S.-backed transitional government, which is losing its battle against Islamist rebels, who now openly flaunt their ties to al-Qaeda and control much of the capital and the southern half of Somalia.

Recently, the rebels have widened their threats to include neighboring Kenya, which supports the Somali government, and Uganda, which supplies peacekeepers.

Although the Obama administration has expressed deep concern that Somalia is becoming al-Qaeda's East African base, it has yet to conclude a policy review on the country, and U.S. support for the government has been relatively limited.

"The commitments we've made are knee-jerk -- a bit here and there," said one U.S. government official who was not authorized to speak on the record. "That's not enough."

On Thursday, Somali President Sharif Ahmed, a moderate Islamist whose government controls barely a few blocks of Mogadishu, pleaded for additional international support -- money and military aid that have been pledged but not yet delivered.

"We beg the world to help defend us from these foreign fighters," Ahmed said after the attack in a hall at the Shamo Hotel, where witnesses said the bomber walked up to a speakers' panel crowded with government ministers, greeted them by saying "peace," then detonated his explosives.

Two journalists and a professor were among the dead. One of the slain government officials was identified as the minister of higher education, Ibrahim Hassan Addou, a Somali American who once taught at American University. More than 55 people were wounded, according to hospital officials.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors Thursday to discuss the latest crisis in Somalia. A senior Somali diplomat, Idd Mohamed, called on the council to condemn the attack, which he blamed on the Islamist rebel group al-Shabab, saying: "The intention was to create terror, to create panic and question the legitimacy of the Somali government."

After the meeting, the Security Council issued a statement condemning the attack as "a criminal act" and expressing support for the transitional government.

But a senior European diplomat said that it was unlikely Ahmed's government would get any additional support for its military or that African Union peacekeepers would prop it up.

"Somalia is the worst place to be on Earth right now," said the diplomat, who did not want to be named offering such a bleak assessment. "Nobody wants to commit troops. It's as simple as that."

Besides being a setback for the Somali government, the bombing was a blow to members of Somalia's professional class, who have been fleeing the country in droves since the latest wave of conflict began with a U.S.-backed invasion by Ethiopia three years ago this month. The ceremony was to mark the second graduating class of doctors in the past few years, a feat all the more remarkable because of the constant bombings and firefights the students had endured as they studied.

"They attacked students, parents, doctors -- it's like they attacked the nerves of the Somali community," said a Nairobi-based Somali analyst, who did not want to be identified because he is returning to Mogadishu soon. "It's a message that they will not spare anyone who is not with them."

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