Thursday, December 28, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somali and Ethiopian troops drove Islamic fighters out of the last major town before Mogadishu yesterday, and the government predicted that the capital and stronghold of the radical Islamists would fall without a fight.

Government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said no assault was planned on Mogadishu because the forces of the Council of Islamic Courts were crumbling so fast.

“Islamic Courts militias are already on the run, and we hope that Mogadishu will fall to our hands without firing a shot,” he said.

As government forces advanced to within striking distance of this beleaguered city, clan leaders considered abandoning Islamic militias who control the Somali capital and throwing their support to the United Nations-backed regime, based in Baidoa.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council failed yesterday for a second day to agree on a statement calling for a quick end to the war in Somalia after Qatar again insisted that it also urge Ethiopian troops to leave.

The 15-nation council remained split 14-1 against the Qatari position, as it had been Tuesday, so further deliberations were called off with no expectation that they would resume any time soon, diplomats said.

During the two days of closed-door negotiations, Qatar had pushed for a demand that “all foreign forces immediately withdraw from the territories of Somalia and cease their military operations inside Somalia.”

Acting U.S. Ambassador Alejandro Wolff said it was too simplistic to think that an Ethiopian withdrawal would solve the problem.

The Islamic Courts movement had grown steadily in power for six months, until the dramatic entry into the war by Ethiopian troops. Since then, fortunes have changed dramatically with the Islamists in full retreat.

Yesterday, residents reported seeing thousands of Ethiopian and Somali government troops in tanks heading toward Balad, about 18 miles away from Mogadishu.

Former warlord Mohammed Dheere, who controlled the town of Jowhar before it was captured by the Islamists in June, led in the Somali government troops.

Sounds of the fighting reached a military camp south of Jowhar and in the village of Lego. An Islamist official said his troops were simply entering a new phase in their battle.

“Our snakes of defense were let loose, now they are ready to bite the enemy everywhere in Somalia,” said Sheik Mohamoud Ibrahim Suley. He did not elaborate, but some Islamic leaders have threatened a guerrilla war including suicide bombings in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

Analysts fear the conflict in Somalia could engulf the region. Islamic Courts leaders have said repeatedly that they want to incorporate ethnic Somalis living in eastern Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya and Djibouti into a Greater Somalia.

Some analysts also fear the Islamic movement hopes to make Somalia a third front — after Afghanistan and Iraq — in militant Islam’s war against the West.

The group’s often severe interpretation of Islam is reminiscent of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime — ousted by a U.S.-led campaign in late 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden. The U.S. government says four al Qaeda leaders, thought to be behind the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, are leaders in the Islamist militia.

Ethiopia sent fighter jets deep into militia-held areas Sunday to help Somalia’s internationally recognized government push back the Islamist militias. Ethiopia bombed the country’s two main airports and helped government forces capture several villages.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Tuesday that Ethiopian forces may soon wrap up their offensive against the Islamic militias. He said he aims to severely damage the Islamic Courts’ military capabilities and allow both sides to return to peace talks on an even footing. He has said he would not send troops into Mogadishu.

A State Department spokes- man in Washington signaled support Tuesday for Ethiopian military operations against Somalia, noting that Ethiopia has had “genuine security concerns” stemming from the rise of Islamist forces in its eastern neighbor.

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