Somalia Crisis Turns to Quaqmire As Clinton Hardens US Resolve

PREDICTIONS that the United Nations humanitarian mission in Somalia would devolve into a drawn-out military conflict seem to be coming true, but few UN or United States officials - or Somalis themselves - know how the Americans and UN can withdraw without more bloodshed and loss of face.

In the wake of the highest single-day death toll of US soldiers since the Gulf war, President Clinton has hardened US policy by authorizing further armor and troops, vowing to do ``whatever is necessary'' to erase the ``brutality and anarchy'' in Somalia.

But criticism is strong among relief workers, UN humanitarian agencies, and in the US Congress that the original UN mission has been lost amid skirmishes between UN troops and supporters of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. (Somalia perspective, Page 20.)

UN military sources here now readily concede that what started 10 months ago as ``Operation Restore Hope'' has become an entangling military conflict.

But UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has warned against a US pullout, arguing that it would ``condemn the people of Somalia to the resumption of civil war and all the horrors that would result.''

For four months General Aideed has evaded capture by highly trained antiterrorist US Delta Force commandos. Instead of victory, however, the US-led UN troops have seen Aideed's support grow among Somalis who view him as a national hero fighting imperialism.

``For the first time in Somalia, there has been killing under the flag of humanitarianism,'' says Rony Brauman, president of the French agency Doctors Without Borders, which pulled its last doctor out of Mogadishu Sept. 26.

Somali gunmen are now bracing for a US military reaction to gun battles Oct. 3-4, when UN troops made another attempt to capture Aideed. At least 12 US troops have been confirmed killed, a US Army helicopter pilot captured, and 78 wounded. Two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and several troops are still ``unaccounted for.''

Efforts by the Clinton administration in recent weeks to ease the UN's hard military line in Somalia - after the deaths since May of 66 UN troops and more than 600 Somalis, according to UN figures - appear to have been set aside as disturbing TV images have appeared of jubilant Somalis dragging an American corpse through the streets of the capital and of a captive Army Warrant Officer Michael Durant.

President Clinton warned Oct. 4 that harm to the US hostage would spark a heavy ``US, not UN'' reaction. He also authorized the deployment of an additional 220 elite Army troops, four M1-A1 tanks, 14 Bradley armored vehicles, and two AC-130 gunships.

US Marines first landed in Somalia last December on a humanitarian mission to reverse a horrific famine and break the grip of warlords. But the operation has become a messy manhunt - action authorized by the UN Security Council - for Aideed, the warlord blamed for the deaths of 24 Pakistani UN troops on June 5.

Clashes between UN troops and Aideed loyalists have increased in frequency and ferocity, causing deep resentment among Somalis in southern Mogadishu, Aideed's stronghold.

UN sources here agree their mission has become too military.

``We lost the moral high ground on 12 July,'' one UN official says. ``The American attack helicopters targeted a meeting of Aideed's `cabinet,' but we never even gave them a chance to surrender.'' At least 70 Somalis were killed in one building by more than 2,000 rounds of 20mm cannon fire in 17 minutes, an action many Somalis saw as a simple massacre worthy of revenge.

On the streets of Mogadishu, the drama of fading UN credibility is played out daily, as the 15,000 well-armed and armored UN troops sit pinned down in fortified compounds behind coils of razor wire. They rarely venture onto the streets where snipers lie in wait. UN officials here are painfully aware that the city has never been so dangerous for them. Each night the UN troops sleep in flak jackets and helmets.

Somali gunmen go from door to door, asking for Americans they know of by name. Somalis expect that Officer Durant will be used in bargaining for the release of Aideed's top lieutenant, Osman Ato, who was captured by US troops in September.

Many Somalis say the UN military has prompted a blood feud with Aideed's Haber Gedir clan. The result has been a low-level guerrilla war against the UN that shows no signs of subsiding.

Somalis argue that UN policy may unravel because Aideed alone has been targeted by the UN, among 15 warlords who are all considered by Somalis to have committed human rights abuses.

That policy, according to one UN official, shows the root of the US-command problem here: ``The Americans have no understanding of the enemy.''

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