- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

NAIROBI, Kenya Increased U.S. attention to Somalia as a new target in the war against terrorism is being exploited by forces seeking to undermine the new Somali government just as it is getting on its feet, international officials say.
American aircraft are conducting reconnaissance flights over the country and Western warships are patrolling its coast, and a parade of U.S. officials has jetted around East Africa hunting for clues about al-Itihaad a local Islamic group believed to be linked to Osama bin Laden's terror network.
But U.N. officials and relief agencies working to stabilize the country after years of near anarchy which is vividly depicted in the film "Black Hawk Down" say hostile factions are already seeking to exploit the heightened interest.
Somalia has come a long way from the violence and anarchy protrayed in "Black Hawk Down," say Western officials working in the country. Entrepreneurs and aid agencies are returning, reconstruction is underway and commerce is thriving.
A three-year transitional national government (TNG), chosen at a peace conference 17 months ago, is slowly asserting control in the capital, Mogadishu. It has demobilized half of the 20,000 militias who used to roam the streets and has set up a national police force and army.
Regional analysts also say that al-Itihaad, the focus of U.S. concerns, has not had training camps in Somalia since the early 1990s.
Ken Menkhaus, an American professor and former adviser to the United Nations on Somalia, describes al-Itihaad as a "small, relatively weak organization with a mainly domestic agenda" that is "in no way a subsidiary of al Qaeda," the bin Laden terror network.
Support for the warlords, who have dominated Somalia since the overthrow of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991 is on the wane, although they still control vast swaths of the country.
But U.N officials say enemies of the interim government are moving rapidly to turn the U.S. war on terrorism against the TNG.
The most prominent of these is the Somali Restoration and Reconstruction Council (SRRC) a coalition of warlords formed at a meeting in neighboring Ethiopia in March 2001 whose declared aim is to overthrow the government in Mogadishu.
The SRRC has five rotating chairmen, of whom the best known is Hussein Mohammed Aideed of the United Somali Congress-Somali National Alliance.
Mr. Aideed, a former U.S. Marine reservist, inherited his position from his father, who died in 1996. Mr. Aideed lives in the United States, and his control over Mogadishu has diminished since the TNG took over.
The other significant player is Mohammed Nur Shatigudud of the Rahanwein Resistance Army. His power base is in the southwestern regions of Bay and Bakool.
None of these faction leaders represents a serious threat to the TNG by himself. That comes from the SRRC's silent partner and backer Ethiopia, the superpower of the Horn of Africa.
Relations between Ethiopia and Somalia have long been strained. Ethiopia fears a strong, united Somali state and is strongly opposed to the TNG.
"Whenever there are efforts to reconcile Somalia, to create peace, Ethiopia calls a parallel meeting in [its capital] to purposefully undermine it," one U.N. official said.
Ethiopia has stepped up its involvement in Somalia this month, sending troops over the border to support the ousted leader of the breakaway northeastern Somali region of Puntland, Col. Abdullahi Yussuf.
Observers believe Ethiopia is backing Col. Yussuf because he opposes re-integration with Mogadishu, something his successor, President Jama Ali Jama, favors. Col. Yussuf has loudly accused Mr. Jama of having links with al-Itihaad "terrorists."
While the TNG's enemies have been energized by mounting U.S. concerns over terrorism, other regional leaders have stepped up their efforts to bring peace to Somalia.
At an anti-terrorism meeting in Sudan this month, seven African heads of state agreed to convene reconciliation talks among the rival Somali factions within the next two months in Kenya. The talks are intended to establish a more broadly representative government in Mogadishu.
"The answer is not bombing Somalia, but bringing the parties together so they can talk," said a U.N. official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified.
"The destabilization we are seeing today is because every faction leader thinks he has the ear of Ethiopia or the United States. There are no forces pursuing a peaceful agenda for Somalia."


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