- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

A suicide attack on African Union peacekeepers punctuated last week’s withdrawal. And Islamist rebels Monday took control of the airport and parliament building in Baidoa, the last stronghold of a U.N.-backed government.

But several Africa specialists say that the absence of Ethiopian forces, which drove rebels from the Somali capital in 2006, could help bring about greater stability in the long-term by depriving Somali extremist groups of a substantial recruiting tool.

Ted Dagne, who analyzes Africa for the Congressional Research Service, said the departure of Ethiopians - viewed as an occupying power by many Somalis - could loosen the grip of Al-Shabab, an Islamic militia that gained notoriety during the two-year Ethiopian occupation of the capital. Al-Shabab is often compared to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“Most of the Shabab joined because they hated Ethiopia and hated what they saw as an aggression,” Mr. Dagne said.

Somalia, a country on the Horn of Africa, has been beset by violence for decades, usually among rival warlords competing for power.

The nation has not had a stable government since 1991. Authority is currently vested with the U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), whose top officials have scattered in exile.

Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, hoping to prop up the TFG and repel the Islamic Courts Union, which then controlled Mogadishu.

After the Ethiopian invasion, Al-Shabab spread rapidly, launching frequent guerrilla attacks against Ethiopians and the Somali TFG. Al-Shabab currently controls much of the Somali south, including Kismayo, the nation’s third-largest city, pockets of Mogadishu and much of Baidoa.

Al-Shabab rose to prominence after Ethiopian troops repelled the Islamic Courts Union.

Mr. Dagne said that, when the latest bloodshed began, moderate elements fled the country, leaving Islamists to fill the gaps.

Though Shariah law is codified in its constitution, Somalia is considered more secular than many Muslim nations, with most of the fighting carried out by rival warlords rather than religious sects.

Rank and file Somalis joined Al-Shabab, more out of nationalistic pride than subscription to Islamist ideology, Mr. Dagne said.

The militant tactics of Al-Shabab have been condemned worldwide, but the Ethiopian military has also come under criticism amid reports of human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch recently compiled a report that accused the Ethiopians of war crimes, including raiding mosques and firing indiscriminately into crowds of civilians.

As Ethiopian troops withdrew from Mogadishu, jubilant Somalis reportedly ran into the streets and cheered their departure.

John Prendergast, co-chairman of the Enough Project, which advocates conflict resolution and development in Africa, said that the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces was encouraging. But he cautioned against hastily trying to install a new government.

“The fatal flaw in the past 19 years … has been the urge by the peacemakers to put something in place immediately,” he said. “So they naturally turn to the biggest guns: the warlords and some of the Islamist groups.

“The key to success will be resisting that urge and taking the time to cobble together an alliance among the real authorities on the ground,” he said.

Peace negotiations are currently under way in neighboring Djibouti, between the TFG and the Islamist Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, which is considered moderate compared with Al-Shabab.

Thus far, the talks have succeeded in negotiating the resignation of President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed and the Ethiopian pullout.

African specialists are urging the Obama administration to support this process, though its effectiveness so far has been limited.

The Bush administration had indicated support for deploying U.N. peacekeeping forces, a strategy Mr. Prendergast said could lead to disaster.

“[The presence of U.N. peacekeepers is] the worst possible scenario, which could be perceived as countering Al-Shabab,” he said. “This would provide an almost galvanizing catalyst for support for Al-Shabab, almost as much as the Ethiopians did.”

A State Department official downplayed concerns over U.N. involvement and expressed optimism that a new Somali government could be in place shortly. The official requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for attribution.

Ultimately, U.S. policy toward Somalia may be dictated in part by the Obama administration’s strategy for dealing with Islamic militancy, analysts say.

Al-Shabab shares al Qaeda’s vision of uniting the world under Shariah law Mr. Dagne said. “If these people are not contained, not only would they take over Mogadishu, but they would go beyond Mogadishu.”

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