MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — AS US Cobra helicopter gunships circled overhead yesterday, occasionally firing tow missles or heavy-caliber machine guns at Somali snipers below, the mood on the streets was mixed.
"This can help bring peace," said Ibrahim Hussein, a young man standing near several Italian tanks parked at an intersection just outside the helicopters' target zone. As he spoke, sporadic sniper fire whizzed overhead.
But others in the small crowd at the intersection were angry.
"The American government wants to colonize the country," charged Omar Hussein, another young man. "We shall not forget this event."
"Somalia for Somalia," said a third young man.
The nighttime US air attacks on the ammunition and weapons depots of one of Somalia's main warlords, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, that began here on Saturday turned into a full-scale, daytime assault on his troops yesterday. With these assaults, the US and the UN face a dilemma.
If they succeed in undermining Aideed's strength, the UN and US could send a strong message and gain support of other warlords. But if the massive assault renders Aideed a hero, peace could still be a long way off.
Among Somalis on the streets around the Aideed house taken over by UN troops yesterday, in the section of the city controlled by his faction, sympathy was clearly for Aideed.
"This will continue," said Isse Mahamoud. "The UN [by its attacks on Aideed forces] is pouring gasoline on Mogadishu."
Mahad Moalim, a young Somali teacher, said that with all the pressure on Aideed and his men, "even other clans are going to support him now. Most of the people say UNOSOM [United Nations Operations in Somalia] is going to colonize the country."
But southern Mogadishu is not all of the city and the city is not all of the country.
Rival factions, including that of Ali Mahdi, are happy to see Aideed have his wings clipped. Aideed has, by most estimates, the greatest amount of weaponry in the country, and his resistance to disarmament has stalled efforts to get other factions to disarm, according to US and UN officials.
Under an agreement signed earlier this year by Aideed and the other major Somali military leaders, heavy weapons were put in identified caches to be subject to UN inspection. But Aideed had been resisting such an inspection here for months.
Some of the arms were kept in the same vicinity as a radio station used by Aideed for broadcasting attacks on UNOSOM. On June 5, UN troops began carrying out an inspection, and the station whipped up public sentiment by claiming UN troops were planning to seize the station. An ambush of Pakistani peacekeepers occurred, in which 23 soliders died. The incident lead to the renewed US military intervention in the country.
A US official here said he hopes the ongoing drive against Aideed will widen splits that already exist between Aideed and some of his former political allies in the United Somali Congress party. The official added that ultimately, "political reconciliation" is the key to peace here.
And outside of Mogadishu, according to UN officials, there have been important political developments that could pave the way for disarmament once Aideed either agrees to cooperate or is judged to be significantly weakened by the ongoing US-UN campaign against him.
In northern Mogadishu, for example, an area controlled by Aideed rival Ali Mahdi, heavy weapons have for months been under UN control. And most other factional leaders say they are willing to cooperate in the UN disarmament program, a UN political official here said Wednesday.
In Kismayo, a city still contested by rival factions - one loyal to Aideed and one to Ali Mahdi - elders from both factions have agreed to disarm, the UN official here said.
Most heavy weapons in the northeast are already off the streets, and recent travelers there report no presence of gunmen. In Baidoa, leaders of the Rahaweyne clan, which suffered the most from the recent famine, have called for disarmament.
A key problem area outside of this capital city is the region of Gelkayo, a central Somalia town, where both Aideed and Abdullah Yussef, another Aideed rival, have large amounts of weapons.
Aideed is the "lynch pin" in a move to disarm Somalia, the UN official told the Monitor. "If we can get over the hump here [in Mogadishu], and it translates into success in Gelkayo," disarmament will go smoother elsewhere, the official said.
Disarmament, including retraining of militia forces in peace-time jobs, could take years, says Canadian Brigadier General James Cox, who as Chief of Staff for UNOSOM helped shape the disarmament plan. The air strikes are only the first step of the plan, he told the Monitor.
Earlier this week, the disarmament effort was expanded to the nearby city of Afgoi, south of Mogadishu, where 12 men have been detained. Afgoi has been the site of frequent shootings of relief convoys and other vehicles on their way to the famine-hit area in the interior of the country.