Story of an international conflict
Salvatore Lussu 23 January 2007

The protagonists. On the one side there are the Islamic Courts, a group originating in the alliance between a number of local religious tribunals. They are composed of both moderates and fundamentalists and the Ethiopian and American governments allege links to terrorist organisations, although the Courts deny all accusations of contact with Al Qaeda. On the other side there is the transitional government. Established by the 2004 peace negotiations, it is the only authority to be officially recognised by the international community, although it has never actually governed. For two years this government has been based in the southern city of Baidoa, around 250 km north of Mogadishu, and is backed by Ethiopia, which fears for the potentially destabilising effects on its own internal security of the development of an Islamic Somali state. Ethiopia, in turn, is backed by the United States, who are determined to put an abrupt end to any outbreaks in fundamentalism in Western Africa. In the background are the other states in the region. Ethiopia has accused Eritrea, with whom it has recently been at war, of supplying arms to the Islamic Courts, although Asmara denies the charge. Kenya, on the other hand, watches events with apprehension, anxious at the prospect of refugees fleeing the conflict arriving at their border in droves.

The events. The current crisis has its beginnings in June last year, with the ousting by the Islamic Courts of the former rulers of Mogadishu, the war lords who first appeared in 1991 with the fall of the dictator Siad Barre. The Islamist forces then went on to conquer the entire southern region of the country. After 16 years of anarchy, the Islamic government assured a degree of order and security for the Somali people, although it came at a cost, with the introduction of a number measures inspired by a fundamentalist application of Sharia law – many cinemas and football stadiums were closed, Western music was banned, and criminals publicly executed. Many Somalis, nevertheless, felt these restrictions to be the lesser of two evils. Ethiopia, however, immediately signalled its opposition the regime, giving its backing instead to the provisional government in Baidoa. Since July it has been providing military training to the transitional government’s troops, and has been mobilising men and equipment in the country.

The months which followed were spent in attempted mediation and preparation for war. In September the acting Somali president, Abdullah Yusuf, survived an attempted assassination. On the 25th October the Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi declared that Ethiopia was “technically at war” with the Islamic Courts. On the 8th December the Courts confirmed that they had engaged enemy troops in battle for the first time to the south of Baidoa. In the meantime, the UN Security Council approved resolution 1725, authorising the sending of a peace keeping force to aid the transitional government, although at present only Uganda has made troops available for the 1500 strong force. On the 24th December Ethiopia admitted that its troops had been involved in fighting on Somali soil. Within a few days the Islamic forces were defeated.

On the 28th they left Mogadishu and fled south, where they are presently trapped between the Kenyan border and the Ethiopian army advancing from the north, whilst a US aircraft carrier is positioned to prevent any escape by sea. On the 5th January Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, made an audio broadcast, stating: “I exhort Muslim brothers wherever they may be in the world to embrace the call the Jihad in Somalia”. On the 9th January the United States intervened directly in the conflict, bombing sites in the south of the country where they alleged there was an Al Qaeda base. The objective was to eliminate the three suspects implicated in the attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. No terrorists were killed, but witnesses have reported the deaths of around 30 innocent civilians. This constituted the first case of United States military intervention in Somalia since 1993. The operation was criticised by both the UN and the European Union, although the Somali government has claimed that it authorised the attack.

Many uncertainties. In the meantime the provisional executive, led by Mohamed Ghedi, has moved to Mogadishu, declaring 3 months of martial law in order to restore order within the city. Now there are several uncertainties hanging over the future of Somalia. The first concerns the role of the former War Lords, with whom the government is currently attempting to negotiate. The second concerns the stance to be adopted by the Ethiopian government. President Zanawi has stated a desire to withdraw his troops sometime in the near future, and Ethiopians are far from welcome in the eyes of the local population. On the other hand, the government is powerless without foreign support, and the arrival of an international contingent in the immediate future seems unlikely. Finally there remains the threat of armed insurrection that might be triggered by Islamic forces and which could potentially transform Somalia into another Iraq or Afghanistan, causing the conflict to degenerate further.

Translation by Liz Longden



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