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Somalia tense after Islamists vanish

Ethiopian forces supporting the government have routed the Islamists, but are seen locally as occupiers.

By Rob CrillyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 2007


For six months Somalia's Islamists used freelance warlord Mohamed Qanyare Afrah's home as one of their bases as they took over much of the country. They used his many battlewagons and held meetings in his living room.

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Last week, they fled an onslaught led by troops from neighboring Ethiopia with Somalian government forces.

Mr. Qanyare is grateful but only up to a point. "What I say is Ethiopia should not interfere in Somalian politics," he says. "They can stay as long as they are fighting Al Qaeda – that is a problem for the entire region. But if they try to become involved in our politics then we will oppose them."

Ethiopia's preemptive offensive signals the opening of a new front in the global struggle against Islamist militants. And the speed of the Islamists' retreat is reminiscent of how insurgencies began in both Iraq and Afghanistan, say analysts. Now, victory may hinge upon whether warlords like Qanyare support occupying Ethiopian forces or the Islamists.

For now Qanyare says his opposition to Ethiopians would be political.

But his armored personnel carrier sits in silent threat outside his door. At his gate, a young boy holds a machine gun.

And 50 of his "technicals" – pickup trucks mounted with heavy-caliber machine guns – sit around the corner from the whitewashed house, six miles from Somalia's capital, Mogadishu.

Bitter rivalry with Ethiopia

Ethiopian forces are not popular in this battle-scarred land. Many in Mogadishu see them as an invading force rather than a liberating power. This is due to a longstanding, bitter rivalry between Ethiopia – a country with a large Christian population – and mostly Muslim Somalia. The countries fought two wars in the last 45 years, and Somalia still lays claim to territories in Ethiopia.

Diplomats want an international peacekeeping force to replace Ethiopian troops.

But for now, Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi is reliant on Ethiopia's tanks and artillery to keep his fractious nation in line.

They propelled his meager government forces across Somalia and into the capital, which the Islamists held for more than six months, raising fears that an African Taliban would seek to make the Horn of Africa a haven for Al Qaeda.

Some analysts warn that Mr. Gedi is not doing enough to prepare for the Ethiopians' withdrawal – promised in a matter of weeks.

They warn that without the Ethiopians, his feeble government will be left trying to fill a political vacuum that could let in the return of the warlords and clan militias who held Somalia in anarchy for 15 years – or even allow the Islamists to rise again.

Already Mogadishu has returned to the fear and lawlessness it knew before the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) imposed its version of order.

Tuesday, Gedi told journalists his foreign allies would not leave before their work was done.

"The Ethiopians will leave when we have cleared our territory of terrorists and when we have pacified our capital," he said.

That will take "a week, or weeks, or months, not more."

So far he is pursuing a two-pronged strategy to promote peace.