Warlord's son with a US touch

Creating a 'new Somalia' is the goal of Hussein Aidid, who went to high

Even by Somalia's high standards of violence, during nine years of civil conflict the district of Bermuda was known as one of the most dangerous spots in the capital, Mogadishu.

So imagine the local surprise when Somalia's youngest warlord - a clean-cut former US marine with an American accent, jacket, and tie - paid a visit to officially reopen the main road through Bermuda.

"Look around you, this is Bermuda, and there is peace," enthused one young man in the crowd at the sweltering road-opening ceremony. "We are rebuilding!"

Warlords rarely waste their time at such ceremonies, to reclaim public thoroughfares once deemed too dangerous for all but the most robust gunmen. And in Somalia few can remember the last time any warlord took scissors in hand and cut a celebratory ribbon, signaling that something was being built and not being destroyed.

Cut from different cloth

But this is Hussein Aidid, who says he is cut of different cloth from that of the Old Guard warlords. Though only in his 30s, he is one of the most powerful men in Somalia and has a solid warrior pedigree. Nevertheless he has strong opponents, some within his own clan. And Mr. Aidid rules at a time when many Somalis say the influence of the warlords is waning. In years past, Somalis rallied easily to battle for their clan, but today men like Hussein Aidid must pay their warriors to fight.

It was Mr. Aidid's late father, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, who evaded capture by elite US commandos in 1993. General Aidid was deemed an obstacle to Somali "nation building," after the death of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers at the hands of his clansmen, and the United Nations put a price of $25,000 on his head.

The manhunt climaxed in a battle that left 18 Americans dead. Scenes of cheering Somalis dragging the bodies of US servicemen through the streets on Oct. 4, 1993, forced an abrupt policy reversal and US withdrawal.

Once touted as the test case for a "New World Order," in which humanitarian impulses were to replace the hard-nosed strategic considerations of the cold war, the example of Somalia has since made Americans far less willing to intervene overseas.

Aidid the father died of gunshot wounds in August 1996. And since then Aidid the son has tried to carry the political and military mantle of the powerful Habr Gedir subclan.

"My main objective is to complete the work my father did, and to create a new Somalia where a young generation can lead in a new direction," Aidid says in a rare interview, holding a silver-capped stick once used by Aidid senior. "The old generation only knows fighting. The reality in Somalia is that the young are in control now."

But for many Somalis, the younger Aidid is an enigma, in part because his close connection to the US seems contrary to widespread distaste of the American-led adventure in Somalia.

Aidid says he wants to "bridge the gap." But here is a man who immigrated to the US at age 14, with his mother, when his parents separated. He became an American citizen, graduated from Covina High School near Los Angeles, and until 1995 was studying for an engineering degree at the University of California at Long Beach.

When he refers to "my country," he means the United States. And he is proud to be a reserve corporal in the US Marines - he even aspired to be among the "the few and the proud."

During the initial US humanitarian intervention to contain famine in December 1992, in fact, he served for three weeks in Somalia as a translator and liaison officer, in contact with his father.

"I played a role to help them [American forces] succeed," Aidid says. "I felt I could give something back to my country [the US], and do something good for my people [Somalis]."

"They paid all my scholarships, all my schooling, all my training," he says. "So I thought: 'I owe something to the US, as a Somali.' "

What, me a warlord?

He laughs when asked if he considers himself a "warlord," flashing the same trademark smile of his father, which seems at once both gregarious and devious and forms an inverted triangle to frame bright teeth.

But critics charge that, despite a year of tutelage under a father who was the master of clan politics, Aidid is too unfamiliar with Somalia's traditional clan structure. So he is easily outmanuevered by far more experienced Somali elders, or he promises too much.

In a society where age begets respect, his boyish looks - despite inheriting his father's 4,000-strong militia and much of his political power base - have been a disadvantage.

"The son is not the father," says one close adviser, who notes that the surprise choice of Aidid for leadership was a compromise solution decided upon by a divided group of Habr Gedir elders. This subclan dominates the political faction that controls south Mogadishu - scene of the US/UN-Somali standoff in 1993 - and south and central Somalia.

But Aidid says that this is not necessarily a drawback. "Individually, we are dealing with people who never had Political Science 101," he says. "They don't know what a government or a charter is. They just know the bullet."

This society is now riven by clan rivalries and a series of blood feuds, the origins of which few can remember. Modern weapons long ago destroyed the time-honored nomadic practice of making war and then reestablishing peace.

"My fresh mind comes with nothing to do with the war," he says. "I see my way of governance from the US."

Growing up in Los Angeles and acquiring a military background was "not easy," he says. "It's tough work. Nobody [else in Somalia] has anything like this, because I come with a fresh mind."

His aims also sound strangely American, and follow the "car in every garage" school of campaigning: "My only object is to see Somalia united and peaceful, so everyone can have a salary, and a normal life like I do in the US," he says.

Another example he wants to bring from America is the downplaying of clans. His Somali wife in California, for example, visits him twice a year - but she is not from the same clan.

"I met her, and I did not consider her tribe," Aidid says. "Really, I did not know this tribal thing. I learn it right now."

Aidid vows to bring "new thinking" to brutal clan rivalries that have helped destroy Somalia. His American education prompts talk of multiparty democracy and the rule of law.

Already he has made peace with his father's main rival, created a joint administration in the capital, and overseen the dismantling of the Green Line that divided the city. Not every faction has signed onto the deal, however, complicating opening the Mogadishu port and airport - the plums of the city because of the revenue they can provide.

RECENT heavy fighting in north Mogadishu (not Aidid's turf) left dozens dead. But, during this reporter's recent four-day trip, only 20 shots could be heard - surely some kind of a record.

Nevertheless, Aidid does not travel anywhere in Somalia without a security detail. For the road-opening ceremony, that meant four Toyota Land Cruisers, each with .50-caliber machine guns mounted on the back, each bristling with more than a dozen gunmen.

"New thinking" is an ambitious phrase in a nation that has had no central government since 1991. Somalia has been virtually abandoned by the world since the US and UN humanitarian missions of 1992 and 1993 gave way to the failed US-led military manhunt.

So Aidid's critics, many from his own clan, roll their eyes at his American-style optimism, and point to recent examples of his own "Old Guard" excess. Aidid's militiamen were responsible earlier this month for public executions in the southern town of Baidoa. And his forces have been receiving new weapons to use on the Baidoa front - where atrocities on all sides have continued for four years - and to counter a rearming enemy in the southern coastal city of Kismayu.

"So far what has the young Aidid brought us?" complains one Somali professional, who notes that the airport and seaport are not yet open. "His way of behaving is not paving the way for a future to reconcile the Somali nation."

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