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Islamist offensive ruins the West's plan for Somalia

Militant Islamists have the moderate government surrounded in Mogadishu. If they took over, it would be a devastating blow to US counter-terrorism and anti-piracy efforts in East Africa.

By Shashank BengaliMcClatchy Newspapers / May 17, 2009

Nairobi, Kenya

A major offensive by Islamic rebels has brought Somalia's internationally backed government close to collapse and renewed the possibility that a militant Islamist regime that allegedly has ties to Al Qaeda could seize control of the East African nation.

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That would be a devastating blow to US counter-terrorism and anti-piracy efforts in East Africa, where Al Qaeda operatives bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. American intelligence officials accuse the rebels' spiritual leader, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, of helping to shelter suspects in those attacks, and since 2007 US forces have launched airstrikes at terrorist targets in Somalia.

After a week of heavy mortar and rocket attacks that have left at least 135 people dead and sent tens of thousands fleeing, the insurgents have moved to within a half-mile of the hilltop presidential palace in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, which is being guarded by African Union peacekeepers with tanks and armored vehicles.

The Islamists, reportedly joined by hundreds of foreign fighters, didn't move on the palace Friday and almost certainly would lose a ground confrontation with the better-armed, 4,300-man peacekeeping force. Still, Aweys, a veteran hard-liner who US officials charge is linked to Al Qaeda, vowed to topple the government and institute "the Islamic state of Somalia."

Less than four months after a new, moderate Islamic government formed in a country that's been in the grip of civil war since 1991, the latest multimillion-dollar international plan to stabilize Somalia appears to be in tatters.

Despite a beefed-up African Union peacekeeping force and a UN-backed reconciliation effort, the moderate president, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, has failed to win the support of hard-liners such as Aweys or the powerful insurgent group Al Shabab, which the State Department has labeled a terrorist organization.

"The prospect of [Mr. Ahmed's] government collapsing is real," says Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group, a policy research organization.

The UN refugee agency said that this week's clashes had sent some 30,000 people fleeing and overwhelmed hospitals with casualties. Some Mogadishu residents have been trapped in their homes for days, unable to flee street battles raging around their neighborhoods, the agency said.