Islamist-warlord clashes hinder Somalia's new government

5,000 protesters took to the streets of Mogadishu Friday to protest alleged US support for warlords.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Ask Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi about the achievements of his fledgling Somali government since February - when it first began operating in the volatile country that has gone 15 years with no government - and he reels off a lengthy list of committees formed, bills written, and programs planned.

He points to the fact that just down the potholed roads from the prime minister's fortified home in Baidoa, his MPs are meeting in a warehouse, debating plans for a reconciliation commission. It would tour the country in an attempt to heal the wounds from more than a decade of fighting.

But as Mr. Gedi finishes his list, he admits they will have a tall task ahead.

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Fresh violence in the capital Mogadishu has killed more than 300 people this year and displaced thousands amid widespread claims that American agents have been secretly funding a coalition of warlords who are battling Islamic groups for influence. The allegations brought about 5,000 demonstrators to the streets Friday to call the US an enemy of Islam.

Gedi's parliament is the latest of some 14 attempts to restore peace to Somalia, a country that has been without a functioning government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991.

Since then, warlords have carved the country into a patchwork of personal fiefdoms, making Somalia a no-go zone for United Nations troops since 1995.

The withdrawal of UN forces followed the "Black Hawk Down" episode two years earlier, when a US mission to snatch one of the most influential armed strongmen ended in failure. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and 18 Rangers were killed by Mogadishu fighters.

Now Mogadishu is aflame once more, posing a profound challenge to the man charged with governing the country.

"Now that we have established the Transitional Federal Institutions of Somalia, it was not our expectation that new outbreaks of fighting would start all over the country and in particular in the capital city," Gedi says. "We are concerned about what this means for our work here, and it is very sad that after 16 years, warmongers are still in place, destroying properties, killing innocent people, children, women, elderly people, and also civil society organizations."

Just as the parliament began sitting in February, 11 warlords formed a coalition to fight Islamic fundamentalist groups, who now control 80 percent of the capital.

Members of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism say they are rooting out Al Qaeda members in the city and claim to have evidence of foreign jihadis - from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Pakistan - fighting with the Islamic militias.

Mohamed Qanyare Afrah, one of four dissident ministers to have joined the coalition, says the government has failed to tackle the threat.

"It is necessary to counter terrorism in this country, which is growing all the time at the expense of development and the security of Somali people," he says by phone from his stronghold in the capital.

"One or two people cannot counter the threat, so we formed an alliance," he adds.

But its emergence has also prompted reports that they are receiving covert financial support from the US, which has long worried about Mogadishu as a haven for Islamist terrorists.

An Al Qaeda suspect allegedly involved in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania was passed on to the US by Kenyan authorities after being detained by Somali militiamen in Mogadishu.

The city is also thought to have been used by Al Qaeda terrorists involved in the 2002 attack on an Israeli-owned hotel and airlines in Mombasa.

Suleiman Baldo, Africa program director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says there is a growing mass of evidence to suggest US operations in the country. "The involvement of the US in counterterrorism in partnership with other warlords in Mogadishu is a factor that weakens unity in Somalia," says Mr. Baldo, adding that alleged US support for warlords "undermines the authority of the ... transitional federal government."

Baldo says international support should be channeled through the parliament and its commissions and committees as the best option for uniting the different factions.

His analysis is supported by Gedi's government.

Ministers say that public opinion is becoming inflamed by reports of US activities on Somali soil.

"We don't have evidence one way or the other, but everyone believes it is true," says Mohammed Abdi Hayir, the information minister. "This makes the job of the government more difficult."

So far, US officials have declined to comment directly on the allegations.

William Bellamy, the US ambassador to neighboring Kenya, has refused all interviews on the subject but has felt it necessary to respond through other means.

In a letter to Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper he wrote that the US was not to blame for the upsurge in violence, but said: "It is true that the US has encouraged a variety of groups in Somalia, in all corners of the country and among all clans to oppose the Al Qaeda presence in Somalia and reject the Somali militants who shelter and protect these terrorists."

Back in Baidoa, where the sound of machine-gun fire frequently reverberates through the streets filled with donkey carts, the half-denials fall on stony ground.

"Helping other parties doesn't solve the problem," says Mohamed Nureni Bakar, the energy minister. "If they say they help other parties, then that undermines our government here."

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