Analysis: Somalia crisis stalemated by Ethiopia
Associated Press Writer


NAIROBI, Kenya After nearly 20 years of violent chaos, Islamic extremism and failed peace talks, impoverished Somalia might seem to have hit rock-bottom. But things are getting worse. The crisis is exceeding even the direst scenarios laid out nearly two years ago, when troops from neighboring Ethiopia arrived to oust a radical Islamic militia and support the Western-backed government.

The troops, whom many Somalis consider an occupying force, are seen by some as a catalyst for the violence rather than a cure.

"The nature of the crisis is much more dangerous now," Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina, told The Associated Press. "The level of indiscriminate violence is worse than at any time."

The Ethiopian regime says that it wants to withdraw, but its opponents say it has calculated that an open-ended occupation of Somalia is better than having an Islamist regime next door.

"The Ethiopians will make it impossible for the Islamists," said Daud Aweys, a Nairobi-based Somalia analyst. "The Ethiopians are more powerful, and they have more weapons."

Meanwhile, the result is a stalemate, seemingly impervious to U.N.-brokered peace talks, international pressure and even the daily carnage in Mogadishu, the capital. The Somali government would likely crumble without Ethiopia's muscle, but al-Shabab, a radical group at the heart of the insurgency, refuses to negotiate as long as the Ethiopians remain.

The United States worries that Somalia could be a terrorist breeding ground, particularly since Osama bin Laden declared his support for the Islamists. It accuses al-Shabab of harboring the al-Qaida-linked terrorists who allegedly blew up the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

The U.S. sent a small number of special operations troops with the Ethiopian forces in 2006 and in early 2007 conducted several airstrikes in an attempt to kill suspected al-Qaida members. But the fact that Ethiopia is a key U.S. ally, and most Somalis loathe America, doesn't help matters.

Ethiopia itself is a traditional rival of overwhelmingly Muslim Somalia. It has large Christian and Muslim populations as well as one of Africa's largest armies, which many Somalis see as abusive and heavy-handed. Al-Shabab, which means "the Youth," mounts almost daily mortar attacks, suicide bombings and ambushes.

The result is civilians streaming out of Mogadishu, the capital, many of them gravely wounded, and sheltering on roadsides or fleeing the country. A local human rights group says the insurgency has killed more than 9,000 civilians to date.

The streets of Mogadishu, once a beautiful seaside city, are now bullet-scarred and stained with blood. On Monday 30 people were killed in fighting in the capital and at least 11 civilians died during an overnight attack on an African Union peacekeepers' base in Mogadishu.

Al-Shabab has taken over the port town of Kismayo, Somalia's third-largest city, and effectively closed Mogadishu's airport by threatening to attack any plane using it.

Al-Shabab's attacks look likely continue indefinitely, with the goal of simply crippling and humiliating the government. Reprisals by government and Ethiopian forces are swift and heavy-handed, but have not eradicated the insurgency.

"If your principal interest is quelling the political violence, then an Ethiopian withdrawal will help," Menkhaus said. "That will take away the principal grievance."

The African Union has sent about 2,600 peacekeepers to Somalia. But their mandate is limited to protecting key sites such as the airport and seaport, and they generally are confined to the airport for their safety.

The U.N. has tried to push peace talks between the government and the opposition, but a recent deal with a more moderate faction of the Islamic group seems only to have worsened the violence.

"We have started building up our military strength because some of our fellow insurgents seem to have been corrupted by the enemy, like those who signed the so-called deal with the puppet government," said Sheik Muhumed, an al-Shabab commander.