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Piracy raises pressure for new international tack on Somalia

The world is not willing to allow this strategic nation to remain ungoverned. Can a coordinated effort create a stable government?

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2009

Competition for turf: Al Shabab insurgents stood guard in Mogadishu, Somalia, late last month. Deep instability inside Somalia is at the root of the piracy problem, says one Somalia analyst.

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP

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With Islamist militias in control of much of the country, pirates using Somali coasts to attack commercial ships with ease, and mounting hunger among civilians, Somalia is a failed state begging for new ideas in 2009. US-backed Ethiopian troops who've been propping up an unpopular transitional government are now fleeing the country. Yet as the growing presence of European, American, Indian, and, soon, Chinese navies off the Somali coast show, the world is not willing to allow this strategic nation in the Horn of Africa – with its long coastline along key shipping routes – to remain ungoverned. One of the central questions for 2009: Can a coordinated international effort help create a lasting and stable government?

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Who are Somalia's Islamists and what would their return to power mean for the country?

The vast majority of Somalis are Sunni Muslim, and Islam has historically been one of the few things that binds this nation of competing clans into a functioning and stable society. Some of the more fiery Islamist parties – particularly the radical Al Shabab, listed as a terrorist group by the US State Department – have caused regional experts to worry that Somalia could become a jihadi breeding ground, but the majority of Somalia's Islamist parties are more moderate and pragmatic, and eager to prove their governmental abilities.

A coalition of these different parties, called the Union of Islamic Courts, formed a government for six months in 2006, but its grandiose talk of creating a "Greater Somalia" – taking away territory from neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia where ethnic Somalis live – prompted Ethiopia to send in troops in December 2006 to back a secular transitional government. The failure of that government to extend its hold beyond the city of Baidoa is prompting many experts to suggest that the more popular Islamists should be given another try at government.

"People see the Islamists as bringing law and order, security, and stopping the fleecing of people through roadblocks and unnecessary taxation," says Iqbal Jhazbhay, a Somali expert at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, as Pretoria is now called. Somali clan elders are likely to "be a check and balance on the hardness of the Islamists," he predicts, and "the international community can use back channels through the Saudis and the Qataris to make sure that the Islamists don't make use of terror outfits" to get arms or recruits.

"One way or another, Somalia is likely to be dominated by Islamist forces," says Daniela Kroslak, deputy director of the International Crisis Group's Africa Program, in a recent report. "It makes sense, therefore, to offer the incentives of international recognition and extensive assistance in return for an agreement that is based on compromises by all major Somali actors and promotes the rights and well-being of all Somalis."