A capital on edge after hotel attack during Ramadan

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 28, 2010

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA - The ceiling of the Hotel Muna was splattered with burned flesh and pieces of clothing, the remains of two Islamist suicide bombers who killed 31 people here Tuesday. The blasts blew out doors and covered mattresses with blood and debris. They also shattered what little sense of security Abullahi Warsame had left.

"We are in the worst chapter of our war," Warsame, the hotel's manager, said as he touched a grapefruit-size bullet hole, one of scores that pocked the walls after a gun battle with the attackers.

Violence has long riven Somalia. But the carnage at this three-story hotel, painted in soft hues of green and yellow, has triggered a collective dread in the besieged capital that the conflict has entered a dangerous new phase. Over two decades, Warsame has witnessed U.S. airstrikes and warlords battling for territory. But while they have fought year-round, none of Somalia's power seekers had targeted civilians so calculatingly during Islam's holiest month - until now.

"How can they kill during Ramadan?" Warsame demanded, stepping over spent bullet cartridges. "Something like this has never happened."

The al-Qaeda-linked militant group al-Shabab asserted responsibility for the brazen daylight attack, which many Somalis saw as reflecting the growing influence on the militia of foreign jihadists. The tactics and planning, they noted, mirror those used by militants in Baghdad and Kabul, where assaults on civilians during Ramadan have become routine.

"It is very similar to what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Mohamed Hassan Haad, an influential clan elder from southern Somalia. "The brains behind this are foreign. This is not natural to Somali culture."

For other Somalis, the attack underscored the impotence of the U.S.-backed Somali transitional government and the helplessness that has enveloped Mogadishu. It unfolded inside government-controlled territory, within walking distance of Villa Somalia, the presidential palace, and it took only two assailants disguised in military uniforms to devastate a hotel known for housing government officials, military commanders and lawmakers, many with their own bodyguards.

"I am expecting al-Shabab to overtake the city and the whole country," said Mussa Jama Abshir, whose family has owned the hotel for four decades. "They are powerful. This is the reality on the ground."

Government turf shrinks

It has been a week of mayhem in Mogadishu, a city accustomed to round-the-clock mortar attacks and fierce battles that have killed hundreds and compelled many more to flee their homes. A day before the hotel was attacked, al-Shabab declared a "massive final war" against the fragile government and an African Union peacekeeping force that is preventing it from being toppled.

Over the past few days, front lines have been pushed back, shrinking the sliver of territory the government controls. Clashes have erupted along the Muka al-Mukarama, the main road that connects Villa Somalia and government ministries with the airport.

On Friday, pickup trucks loaded with gunmen and minibuses filled with fleeing Somalis sped through intersections to evade bullets fired from al-Shabab positions. African Union armored vehicles secured the parliament building, a key target of the militants. Nearby, a patch of earth was covered with tank shells from nights of bombardment. A few yards farther were remnants of burned tires placed by al-Shabab, a bold sign of its ability to infiltrate government-controlled turf.

In recent days, hundreds of people seeking refuge have arrived in the Medina neighborhood, the capital's safest area because of its proximity to the airport and the African Union base. Many had fled government-controlled areas that al-Shabab militants overran. Few were willing to predict that they would remain safe.

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