NAIROBI, KENYA — The rapid rise of Somalia's Islamist militias has prompted a flurry of diplomatic efforts to stabilize the troubled country in the Horn of Africa.
Earlier this week, the African Union and Western diplomats decided to send officials to Somalia to assess the possibility of deploying a peacekeeping force to a country ripped apart by 15 years of anarchy. That has the backing of President Abdullahi Yusuf, head of Somalia's virtually impotent transitional government, who flew to Ethiopia Tuesday to demand speedy intervention.
Regional powers support intervention out of fear of an Islamic state on their doorsteps, while Western governments are worried the country could become a haven for terrorists.
But rather than promote stability, the move could inflame feelings in the newly dominant Islamic courts movement, which has everything to lose by foreign intervention.
Its leaders say there is no need to invite peacekeepers when Islamist militias have succeeded in pacifying Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous cities on the planet.
"Any sort of AU intervention – which would most likely be a cover for Ethiopian intervention – is most likely to be highly divisive and is likely to derail any attempt at peaceful negotiation between the government and the courts," says Sulieman Baldo, Africa program director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "The [Islamist] courts will be very hostile to any sort of Ethiopian intervention in Somalia."
Ethiopian troops have previously supported President Yusuf in his home state of Puntland where he held off an Islamist challenge during the 1990s. Somalia's neighbor is also thought to have designs on its land.
For the past two weeks, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, who heads the Islamic Courts Union, has insisted to the watching world that his network of sharia courts – which has imposed strict Islamic law, shut down cinemas, and banned people from celebrating New Year's – has no links to Al Qaeda and has no plans to turn Somalia into an Islamic state.
But at the same time, his militias have swept out of Mogadishu conquering a huge swath of Somalia, imposing sharia law on the strategic town of Jowhar and traveling almost up to the border with Ethiopia.
The courts are the closest thing to a central government the country has seen since President Siad Barre fled in 1991. After his departure, Somalia gradually split into a series of personal fiefdoms administered by a motley combination of gangsters and thugs known as warlords.
But the rise of the Islamic courts and their militias has ousted the warlords from Mogadishu, where they were allegedly receiving cash from the United States to prevent Al Qaeda from making inroads.
Militias loyal to Sheikh Ahmed are now positioned about 40 miles from the town of Baidoa, where the country's transitional government has sat for four months since being formed in neighboring Kenya.
Earlier this month, its parliament voted to endorse Yusuf's call for peacekeepers to guarantee the survival of the government.
That vote was quickly followed by accusations from the Islamic courts that Ethiopia had sent 300 soldiers across the border to bolster its ally, Yusuf. The charges are denied by Ethiopia, although it is well known that small numbers of Ethiopian troops regularly criss-cross the border as part of its own defenses.
For now, the presence of peacekeepers would also violate an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations on all sides.
Lifting it, says Lt. Col. Harjit Kelley, a consultant to the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia, would risk enflaming an already volatile situation by legalizing the flow of guns and ammunition into the country.
He adds that the Islamic courts had strong backing from people living in towns under their control, and that the government, which has the support of much of the international community, has no option but to open a dialogue.
However, Yusuf has previously ruled out talks with the Islamic courts' leadership unless they meet three conditions: withdraw their militias to Mogadishu, recognize his government, and disarm.
Colonel Kelley doubts the Islamists will agree to those conditions, and says Yusuf has next to no leverage over the courts.
"The Islamic courts have the infrastructure, the command and control, that has [allowed them to] take the capital and other towns and then, more important, to hold on to them, so they are a big threat to the TFG," says Kelley.
"The TFG's best chance is to offer them commanding positions – with some real responsibility – in the government."
For now, there is peace in Mogadishu, but no one doubts that much work remains to rebuild the failed state.
Earlier this week, the United Nations' World Food Programme and UNICEF warned that the recent fighting and years of drought had pushed Somalis to their limit, creating the highest rates of malnutrition seen in years.
Mahamud Hassan Ali, the mayor of Mogadishu, says the West had already intervened in his city, funding the warlords and exacerbating the conflict.
Now, he says, it is time for the outside world to help rebuild it.
"My appeal is that the taxes of the world are no longer used for destruction, but instead used to make a difference to the lives of our people."