Transcript

Somali Islamic Fighters Retreat

Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 3, 2007; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Stephanie McCrummen was online Wednesday, Jan. 3 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the conflict in Somalia, where transitional government troops backed by Ethiopia have forced the retreat of Islamic militia fighters. Despite their initial success, there is little formal security in Mogadishu and a disarmament order was widely ignored.

Ethiopian Troops Leave Security In Mogadishu to City's Residents, ( Post, Jan. 3)

The transcript follows.

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Falls Church, Va.: The Islamic Courts brought Mogadishu and most of southern Somalia to a peace, law and order in less than 6 months. No one has achieved this milestone in the past 16 years. All over sudden west and Ethiopia has major interest in Somalia, is this a Islamic phobia? or is it that they don't want peace in horn of African state who did not smell the scent of peace over a decade? I don't understand.

Stephanie McCrummen: Hello from Mogadishu. Thanks for your question.

The Ethiopian government accused the Islamic Courts of supporting ethnic Somali separatist groups inside their borders. Both the US and the Ethiopians accuse the Courts of providing shelter to terrorists, in particular the three suspects in the 1998 US Embassy bombings. At the same time, ordinary Somalis here in Mogadishu, as you point out, tend to say that the Courts provided them with the first real peace and order they'd experienced in 15 years. Many people here say the comparison to the Taliban was exaggerated.

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Lutz, Fla.: It is a good thing that the Europeans and certain African states have finally taken an interest in the plight of Somalia. My main worry, however, is that the U.S. government is so blinded by its "global war on terror" that it will reject participation by moderate elements of the Islamic Courts Union. Do you think that Washington is capable of developing a logical plan for international support to Somalia?

Stephanie McCrummen: Hi there. There has been a lot of criticism over the U.S. policy -- critics would say lack of policy -- towards Somalia. The transitional government was begging for international support for two years and the US mostly remained on the sidelines. Now that the government, which has little in the way of a military, is faced with the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops protecting it, they are begging for international support again. So this is another crucial time for Somalia so I'd say at least there's room for the US State Dept to make a difference.

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Reston, Va.: How many Western journalists are in (southern) Somalia right now? Your by-line today was the first one we've seen in-country. What is the security situation like in Mogadishu for you? Are you planning to go to Kismaayo?

Stephanie McCrummen: Hi there. There are no commercial flights in at the moment so getting in has been difficult. A group of journalists flew to Baidoa with the Ethiopians over the weekend, then drove 5 hours to Mogadishu. I came with four other western journalists on a charter plane Tuesday afternoon. For the moment, security is relatively ok for Mogadishu, meaning you can't go out without armed guards. But everyone seems to be holding their breath.

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San Diego, Calif.: What, if anything, is being done or can be done to address the needs of minority tribes in Somalia, those who have been traditionally targeted for human rights abuses by warlords, majority tribes and the Islamic Court system?

Stephanie McCrummen: There's been some confusion over this story. One young man was killed -- accidentally the Courts say -- after the Islamists shut down a movie theater. Islamic leaders apologized for the death. There were also two executions of accused murderers. People told me today that the Courts let it be known they did not like singing, and loud music and irreligious television programs, but they didn't exactly police these rules, and people I talked to seemed willing to live with them-- at least for the period of time they did -- in exchange for stability. It is true also that people were relieved to be rid of the social restrictions when the new government came to town this week. But as one Somali told me today, the problem now is insecurity. People can watch Bollywood movies again, but they also fear for their lives.

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Freising, Germany: How vulnerable do you think that Ethiopia is to terrorism in its own country after its incursion into Somalia? Ethiopia has a large Muslim population. Is there a chance that the Muslim-Christian conflict could escalate in and around Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia even if Ethiopia leaves Somalia soon?

Stephanie McCrummen: There is fear that the more extreme elements now on the run near the Kenyan border will regroup and launch terrorist attacks, yes. But one point: Somalis in general tend to embrace a moderate form of Islam. And in Ethiopia, Christians and Muslims have lived in each others' neighborhoods, celebrated each others' holidays and intermarried for generations.

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Vancouver, B.C.: How can the transitional government actually carry through with it's stated demand that the 'clans' disarm and surrender their weapons?

It's seems to me that this would just start another civil war.

Stephanie McCrummen: The disarmament issue is huge and complex and today, last report I heard, a grand total of 9 or ten guns had been handed over at collection points. So what they're doing now doesn't seem to be working. Some say that the government needs to establish its own security before asking others to give up theirs. Others say the government needs to pay for the guns. There's a lot of mistrust among various clans and sub clans as far as handing their guns over to a government they perceive as a rival. So, I don't know the answer to the question, but it seems to be one of the most pressing ones at the moment.

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New York, N.Y.: Reports suggest that the last six months under the Islamists were the most peaceful of Somalia's recent history. How much support do they have among the general population, and how much support is there for the Ethiopian- and U.S.-backed transitional government?

Stephanie McCrummen: People seemed to welcome the stability and security that the Islamic Courts brought to the country. Here in Mogadishu, I talked one man today who said his daughter had never seen the ocean while the warlords were in power, because it was not safe to cross into the shore area. When the Courts came, he said it was amazing simply to be able to wander to the beach. Others were reunited with relatives they had not seen in years. People felt secure enough to drive at night and wear Rolex watches on the street. Now that the Courts are gone, it seems like people are just as willing to give the new government a try--Somalis seem endlessly adaptable--but they are worried about a return to the old warlord ways. As for the Ethiopians, I think people are generally uncomfortable with their presence while also fearing that their exit will unleash chaos.

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Bellingham, Wash.: What has happened to Islamic Courts leaders like Hassan Dahir Aweys; Sharif Ahmed; the young firebrand, Ayro; military commander Hasan Turki? Did they get out of Somalia?

Stephanie McCrummen: Hi there. Unclear where they are at the moment, though the general consensus is they all fled to Kismayo and then into the mangrove forests near the Kenyan border, which is famously a place to disappear.

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Falls Church, Va.: Yesterday interior minister another former warlord Hussein Aided said that Somalia and Ethiopia will remove current border lines. He also said that we'll hold one passport. Most Somalis think this is the reason Ethiopia invaded Somalia, since Ethiopia don't have major seaport they want to use Somalia's natural resources and that the TGF are sellout. What are the people on the streets of Mogadishu think about Aided's comment?

Stephanie McCrummen: Aidid is known around here for talking without thinking at times, and he has tried to backtrack from his statement, saying it was misinterpreted, etc. I don't think many people took it seriously.

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Greensboro, N.C.: Can you provide details on the U.S. government helping Ethiopia on intelligence and tactics during the raids that flushed out the Islamists?

Stephanie McCrummen: The US has a large military presence in Djibouti nearby, and the Navy has been patrolling waters off the Somali coast. The U.S. government has steadfastly denied any involvement or encouragement.

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San Mateo, Calif.: Is it fair to say that the Ethiopian invasion was done at the behest of the United States? I read in The Post that Abizaid was in Addis in serious consultations just as the tensions began to mount.

Stephanie McCrummen: According to the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abizaid discouraged a military campaign. But Abizaid is a Dept. of Defense official. Meles said nothing about the U.S. State Department, which has supported Ethiopia's right to defend itself. In any case, there was a strong perception here Somalia and Ethiopia both that the U.S. tacitly gave Ethiopia the go ahead.

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Woodbridge, Va.: I am a Muslim Ethiopian American. I have day today contact with my cousins, nephews and friends in Jijiga (Ethiopia) and Hargeysa(Capital of Somali Land). They are telling me that they support the intervention of Ethiopia is of vital importance in paving the way to bring sustainable peace and a sustainable government in Somalia. what is your opinion? Can you tell us about what the people in Mogadishu are saying about that?

Take care.

Stephanie McCrummen: I'll let your preface speak for itself... Many people, I think, share the view of your relatives. Others are growing impatient with the Ethiopian presence, and are worried that when they leave, the country will return to warlord rule, or even civil war.

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Stephanie McCrummen: Thanks for your questions!

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