Somalis in Baidoa Call For Long-Term US Role
BAIDOA, SOMALIA — AS the first United States Marine helicopters and armored personnel carriers arrived in this famine-stricken town yesterday, Fatima Ibrahim expressed the hope of many Somalis here.
"Now all gunmen should be disarmed and the situation will be OK," said the owner of a small tea stall at the edge of town.
But disarming the population goes beyond the military's goal, according to Robert Oakley, US special envoy to Somalia and a former ambassador here.
"This is not the mission of the US," he told international reporters here. The US is seeking only a "reduction of arms and to bring the threat of arms under control," Mr. Oakley said. He called on Somalis themselves to "take the lead" in this effort.
For nearly two years, Somalis have been dying in large numbers from civil anarchy and famine. At the center of the famine, Baidoa has seen some of the worst. Relief efforts here have drawn starving people from surrounding villages, but the influx of food also has drawn a concentration of armed looters. The death rate at times reached more than 200 a day.
While US officials speak of a narrow humanitarian mission in Somalia, the people here say they want the roughly 700 US and French soldiers to do more than just guard food supplies.
Specifically, Somalis here say the foreign forces should:
* Seize weapons to stop the rampant armed street crime and general banditry in this "Dodge City" town.
* Help reestablish a national police force.
* Help launch a federal government based on regional autonomy.
* Recognize the predominant local Somali ethnic group, the Rahanweyn clan, as the legitimate leadership, removing from power the outside clans that have ruled here by force.
And instead of a quick stay of no more than a few months, Somalis here say they want the Marines to stay a long time.
"How many years are they going to stay?" asks a young Somali man, limping along on crutches just outside the former military airport which the Marines now occupy. "We'd like them to stay our lifetime," he adds.
Although the Bush administration's initial goal of demobilization prior to the Clinton inauguration on Jan. 20 has been quietly abandoned, military officials still speak of staying in Somalia for only a matter of months.
Meanwhile, gun control and clamping down on armed street crime will be matters for a national police force, says John Marks, an American who heads the United Nations relief program in Baidoa.
Members of the defunct Somali police force "are still out there. They are apolitical and willing to come back," he told the Monitor after his overnight ride with the troops from Mogadishu, Somalia's capital.
Mr. Marks also endorses the idea of a new national government in Somalia based on "regional autonomy."
That is exactly what local Rahanweyn political leaders want. They say the US military should work with them to oust what amounts to an occupying force from the Habar-Gedir and other clans working for the United Somali Congress (USC) in alliance with Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed.
General Aideed is one of the two main warlords in the civil war in Somalia; his rival is Mohamed Ali Mahdi.
"We are the people of the community who called on the US Army to come here," says Awil Ahmed, secretary-general of the Somali Democratic Movement, the Rahanweyn political party.
Asked about the USC arms that were here just days before the Marines came, he said he knows where they have been taken. "We will help the US forces and tell them wherever there is a gun to collect."
"Today is Rahanweyn independence day," said another Rahanweyn, Issac Sheikh Abdurahman, after the Marines arrived.
The Marines went to work quietly, meeting with relief officials and setting up camp at the airport, where they found some Soviet air-to-air missiles and loaded them on a truck for disposal.
As the soldiers prepared to escort the first food shipments to various centers in and around Baidoa, Cpl. Jason Knapik said the days of food looting are over. "That will not happen any more. The Marines are here," he said.
With the Marines providing security, relief agencies will step up assistance to rural areas where many people may still be in great need, says Russel Kerr, vice president of the US-based agency World Vision.
At a feeding center here run by Concern, an Irish charity, Iicho, a very thin five-year-old who recently arrived from a remote village that was lacking food, looked up with a shy smile.
"I'm healthy, not sick," she said, gently grasping the hand of a visitor and shaking it.