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New Somalia government offensive against Al Shabab

The weak, transitional Somalia government may finally bring President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed some badly needed legitimacy if newly trained forces can push back the militant Islamist group, Al Shabab.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / February 8, 2010

Armed militants from Somalia's Hizbul Islam rebel group walk in a formation as they patrol southern Mogadishu, Thursday.

Feisal Omar / Reuters

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Johannesburg, South Africa

A long-awaited offensive by the weak, transitional Somali government may finally bring President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed some badly needed legitimacy, but it is almost certainly going to increase the hardship of tens of thousands of civilians who are being forced from their homes.

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The conflict has the potential to spread outside of Somalia. The offensive is targeting the militant Islamist Al-Shabab rebel group who have threatened to launch a jihad, or holy struggle, against Kenya for its reported military support for President Sharif’s government.

The most recent bout of fighting began in January as thousands of Somali troops, newly trained in Djibouti, Burundi, and reportedly in Kenya, began to return to Somalia and take up positions on the front lines. Fighting in Belet Wayne, Dhuusamareeb, and the capital of Mogadishu has killed 258 in the past month, displaced some 82,000 others, and increased the number of Somali civilians who must rely on external food aid to survive, according to the United Nations.

Al Shabab’s deputy commander, Sheikh Hussen Abdi Gedi, told a reporter for the pro-Shabab radio station, Andalus, that the Islamic militia was prepared to call for jihad against Kenya.

“Kenya has prepared troops that comprise of Kenyans and Somalis, who are trained to attack and take over the regions,” Sheikh Hussen told Andalus radio on Sunday, referring to press reports that Kenya had trained some 2,500 Somali troops for the Sheikh Sharif government. “They are planning to attack us on the land, sea, and air. We are urging people to be ready and defend our land.”

A fresh chance for legitimacy – and stability

Somalia has been at near-constant war since the fall of its last functioning government, the dictatorship of President Siad Barre in 1991, so the current uptick in violence can be seen as just another sad chapter. But the Sharif government sees its current offensive as a chance to finally push back against the Al Shabab militia whose ties to Al Qaeda and use of suicide bombers make it an international menace. This might mean more hardship in the short term, experts on Somalia say, but it might mean more stability in the long term.

“Certainly in the short term, any concerted military offensive against Al Shabab is going to have humanitarian consequences, but the hope is that in the long term this can lead to a resolution of the conflict so that people can get on with their lives,” says E. J. Hogendoorn, director of the Horn of Africa Project at the International Crisis Group’s office in Nairobi. “This is a chance for the government to show the public, in places where they don’t control territory, that they can provide services and to show they are a functioning government.”

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