AS US forces in Somalia press into the embattled town of Baidoa, the questions of how or whether to disarm Somalis keep being pressed on the American-led military operation.
Without a doubt, the glut of assault rifles and other weaponry has played a major part in creating Somalia's problems. And many of those guns are of American or Soviet origin.
But the American commander on the scene, Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, correctly points out that disarming the whole country would entail a redefinition of his mission. That mission, as stated by President Bush, is to secure routes for humanitarian relief and to pave the way for a United Nations peacekeeping program in Somalia.
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali argues that disarming the country's roving militias and bandits was understood to be part of the task undertaken by US forces. Washington responds that weapons will be seized, but only when they present a threat to American troops.
In simple fact, Somalia is so infested with firearms that their removal is impractical as a short-term goal. Also, ownership of weapons is a tradition among Somalis, as US special envoy and former ambassador Robert Oakley noted. Forcible efforts to search for and confiscate guns could cause resentment against the foreign soldiers.
The US-led forces have to concentrate on their primary mission of clearing the way for wider distribution of food and health-care services. In the course of that they will have many opportunities to collect some of Somalia's excess weaponry.
Substantial disarmament should come, but it ought to be part of a process of political reconciliation embracing the whole country, including the north, which has declared itself independent. Political and diplomatic initiatives have to proceed hand-in-hand with the military thrusts out from Mogadishu. Mr. Oakley, who knows the Somali people and is respected by them, will be a key figure in that aspect of Operation Restore Hope.