Somalia tense after Islamists vanish

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

He has asked the African Union to send peacekeepers and has declared a three-day amnesty for gun owners to give up their firearms.

There were no takers at the Villa Baidoa Tuesday – an old presidential villa designated as one of two collection centers.

"We haven't even taken a pistol," said a Somalian government soldier.

In a city where AK-47s cost $150, most families and businesses rely on one for protection.

Arabey Ma'Alim Abdulle, who coordinates security in the donkey-clogged streets that make up Bakaara market, says he only needed a torch and a nightstick when the Islamists were in power.

Now he has no intention of giving up his gun.

Matt Bryden, consultant to the International Crisis Group, says Gedi's government is following the wrong strategy.

"It should be concentrating on winning over the Hawiye clan – the main support base for the [Islamists] – by bringing them into some sort of government of national reconciliation," he says.

"You have a state of confrontation between the Hawiye and the government and that's where a settlement has to be pursued," he said. "That means some sort of settlement that makes the Hawiye feel like they are part of the government."

That would mean Gedi – himself a Hawiye but largely despised by his kinsmen as a weak and ineffectual leader – losing his position, which is not on the table, added Mr. Bryden.

Ethiopian troops keep a low profile

Tuesday, Somalia's Ethiopian guardians kept a low profile in Mogadishu.

Two tanks guarded the airport runway and a contingent of soldiers was at the port.

The main Ethiopian firepower is based in Afgooye, about 10 miles from Mogadishu, or has followed the Islamists south.

In the south, they managed to rout the Islamist forces, forcing them out of their main stronghold of Kismayo. From there the Islamists have disappeared into the forests of Ras Kaambooni, close to the Kenyan border.

Hussein Aideed, deputy prime minister, admits the government now faces a tough challenge. "To clear [the Islamists] will take a long time. It will not be days this time, but maybe three or four months," he says.

Meanwhile, in parts of Mogadishu, Somalis are reverting to the lives they lived before Islamic law was imposed. Western music has returned to the Global Dancehall, where Somalis welcomed the new year.

When the Islamists were in control, staff were forced to play traditional music and keep the volume down.

Still, freedom to party won't erase the worries Somalis have about a return to anarchy now that the Islamists are gone. "As a businessman, I want stability," shouts Mustafa Haji Abdullahi, the 22-year-old chief operating officer of Telcom Somalia, above a blaring hit by US rapper 50 Cent. "I'm already back to paying bribes."

Now everyone is waiting to see whether the government can consolidate its position or whether it would disintegrate under the pressure of Somalia's bloody history.

"All it would take is for one Ethiopian soldier to make a mistake, to shoot someone, to be accused of rape, and then it is all over," says Mr. Abdullahi. "We would be in for another 16 years of mayhem."

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