Monday, July 17, 2006

Somalia could become a big thorn in America’s side if U.S. officials don’t support moderate Islamic elements and prevent an invasion of Ethiopia, former senior U.S. diplomats said yesterday.

“You talk about mistrust, fear and tension nowadays, and Somalia is even worse than Iraq,” Herman Cohen, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said at a press briefing.

The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the dominant Islamist movement in the narrow nation in the Horn of Africa, controls more than 20 percent of Somalian territory and 40 percent of the Somalian people.

Mr. Cohen said Somalis have enjoyed more security and stability after the ICU’s June takeover of the capital, Mogadishu, than they had in the past 15 years.

“Word is getting out that life in Mogadishu since the ICU is pretty good. They ended the reign of corrupt warlords who only took money, kidnapped people and set up roadblocks,” he said.

Somalian clan politics have prevented the emergence of a strong centralized government for decades, but the appeal of calm and a new united Somalian state could be “a potentially successful formula” for the Islamists, he added.

The growing appeal of the ICU is being monitored by the State Department, which has included the group’s governing council president on its terrorist list.

Robert Oakley, special U.S. envoy to Somalia from 1992 to 1994, pointed out that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has been to Somalia before and used it as an example of a negative U.S. role.

“At the moment, there’s no evidence that al Qaeda is setting up a new base of operations in Somalia. But we can’t just forget about Somalia like we have before,” he said.

Ethiopia, Somalia’s longtime military rival, also is wary of the ICU’s gains.

David H. Shinn, U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999, said, “There are 4 million Somalis living in Ethiopia. If that area were to become part of Somalia like many of these [Islamist] leaders want, Ethiopia would lose a lot of its territory, something like a quarter.”

Mr. Cohen said the United States should discourage Ethiopia from using force and creating a “self-fulfilling prophecy” — the ICU rallying Islamist forces against invading “crusaders.”

The United States should support moderate Islamic elements in Somalia, or risk radicalization, Mr. Cohen said.

He also urged the United States to change its focus from narrow anti-terrorism concerns to a battle for “hearts and minds” in a land still bitter over past U.S. support for the warlords.

“I think now 10 of the 15 Islamic councils are moderate. But with Saudi funding, the hard-liners could gain more ground. We need to support the moderates now, while the situation is still fluid,” Mr. Cohen said.

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