By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 18, 2010; A10
NAIROBI -- U.N. officials on Wednesday ratcheted up their criticism of U.S. policy in Somalia, declaring that recent restrictions intended to prevent al-Qaeda-linked Somali Islamists from gaining strength are holding up humanitarian aid to some of the world's most desperate people.
In recent months, the United States has withheld millions of dollars in funding to Somalia, citing concern that some humanitarian aid was being diverted to al-Shabab, an insurgent group that Washington deems a terrorist organization. But on Wednesday, the United Nations' top humanitarian official for Somalia said that aid groups have seen little evidence of such diversion.
"What we are seeing is a politicization of humanitarian issues," Mark Bowden told reporters here. "No U.N. agency has paid any money to al-Shabab."
Bowden's criticism of the United States, the largest source of humanitarian aid to Somalia, comes as conditions in the chaotic Horn of Africa nation appear to be worsening. U.N. officials said Wednesday that 100,000 Somalis have fled their homes since January amid an uptick in fighting and reports that the U.S.-backed transitional government is preparing a fresh offensive against the Islamists. Many more are suffering from malnutrition and drought-related food shortages; according to recent U.N. estimates, 42 percent of Somalis require aid.
Somalia has not had a functioning central government since 1991. The transitional government controls a small patch of the capital, Mogadishu; its survival hinges upon 5,200 African Union peacekeepers deployed to protect the population. But human rights groups have accused the peacekeepers of indiscriminately killing civilians during mortar attacks. A.U. officials have denied the accusations.
U.S. officials say they had to stop food assistance to Somalia because contractors operating on behalf of aid agencies were forced to pay "tolls" to al-Shabab to gain access to many areas.
"We do have evidence that these payments can be more than negligible. And if that weren't the case, we wouldn't be grappling with this very tough policy issue," an administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the sensitive situation.
"Mark Bowden's criticism is misplaced," State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said. The real blame falls on al-Shabab, which is setting up checkpoints and denying the delivery of food to the Somali people."
Kiki Ghebo, a top U.N. humanitarian official, said that last year only two-thirds of the $900 million needed for Somalia was raised. "If the U.S. is not a player in Somalia, it leaves a big gap," Ghebo said.
U.N. aid agencies and other groups that provide humanitarian assistance in Somalia spent months last year in talks with U.S. officials over how to monitor the distribution of aid in the country. Bowden said the United States has asked U.N. agencies to enact impractical measures, which he said could further hinder aid delivery, but he gave no details.
He added that officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the government's humanitarian aid arm, shared the United Nations' concerns and wanted to resolve the dispute. But the U.S. restrictions appear to stem from higher levels of the administration. Concern about al-Shabab's activities has grown since the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner allegedly planned by al-Qaeda's Yemen branch, and many U.S. officials worry about potential links between the Somali group and militants in Yemen.
An investigation by the U.N. World Food Program concluded that there was no evidence that the agency's Somalia staff had diverted food supplies to al-Shabab fighters, said Peter Smerdon, the agency's spokesman in Nairobi.
Still, there is evidence that al-Shabab views humanitarian agencies as a potential source of income. The WFP pulled out of areas controlled by the group after commanders demanded huge payments from the agency in exchange for permission to operate.
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.