Embattled Ethiopia faces insurgents on two fronts In Ogaden area, Somalis are a worry; so is US role in Horn

This is one of the most desolate stretches on earth, a glaring red desert the size of France where nomads are the only inhabitants and camel caravans the chief means of transport.

It is difficult to believe this wasteland has been the site of sporadic warfare for almost 200 years, according to fact, or 900 years, according to unwritten history. And it is especially difficult to believe there is a new concern that it will become part of a superpower struggle.

The current conflict is a regional rivalry: The Ogaden Desert region is by law Ethiopian, although by culture, language, and Islamic religion it is tied to Somalia. Both claim it.

But Ethiopia is angrily charging that the hit-and-run warwill become another Vietnam because of a United States military agreement with Somalia, signed Aug. 22. That agreement opens the way for part of the US rapid deployment force to be based in the Somali port of Berbera, and for $20 million worth of arms to be shipped to Somalia's military forces this year.

The US presence at Berbera is designed to cover the oil-rich Gulf route and the Indian Ocean, while the weapons are theoretically for defensive use only. Yet the Ethiopians are convinced that, at a minimum, the American arms will make their way into the Ogaden area, either with the Somali regular forces or the guerrillas of the Western Somali Liberation Front.

This seems a hypocritical concern coming from Ethiopia's Marxist government, which initiated the superpower presence in the volatile Horn of Africa by calling in 17,000 Cuban troops, 1,000 Soviet military advisers, and $2 billion worth of Soviet arms and war planes, according to diplomats. And the Russians have their own strategic base on Ethiopia's Dahlak Islands in the Red Sea.

To Ethiopia's mercurial leader, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, however, the US-Somali agreement is the most serious threat since a military coup brought down Emperor Haile Selassie's regime six years ago (Sept. 12, 1974).

Associates say Colonel Mengistu feels the deal will make him even more dependent on outside help at a time he would like to begin moving away from it. Western diplomats confirm that several thousand Cuban troops have been sent home over the past year, and it appears that Colonel Mengistu, a typically proud Ethiopian, would like to cut his reliance on the Cubans and Soviets even further.

These military developments are tied indirectly to a major turning point domestically. Over the past year, Colonel Mengistu has consolidated his rule, and life in Ethiopia has begun to settle down. Over is the "red terror" of 1977 -1978, when thousands were killed in shoot-outs between pro-Moscow and pro-Peking factions.

Over, too, are the purges and power struggles within the shadowy ruling military group. Decisions then were piecemeal and policy did not exist. Colonel Mengistu now has emerged as the only figure that counts, virtually dissolving the council of his colleagues. On street corners of Addis Ababa, billboards feature four profiles: Marx, Lenin, Engels, and Mengistu.

A notable change in the life of Ethiopians also is visible. In September, the first "revolutionary resettlement center" -- otherwise known as an orphange -- opened in the bush village of Zway, providing food, beds, and new clothing to 5,050 street urchins and beggars.

Over the past year, some 5.4 million Ethiopians have enrolled in the government's new reading campaign, a program designed to eliminate the staggeringly high 93 percent illiteracy rate.

Although the Mengistu regime has been unable to lift the average annual income above about $100 a year, the largely peasant population does now keep more money, no longer paying the bulk of its income to the once influential church or the state.

As a result, United Nations officials claim most people are eating more, an important factor in a country where food means politics. The famine of 1973, and the need for land reform, were the main issues that triggered the revolution.

Neutral observers in the capital claim Colonel Mengistu feels the developments in the Horn represent a threat to this new stability, as tenuous as it is. The Mengistu reaction -- or overreaction, as US officials claim -- is likely to mean he will continue to devote the majority of his resources and funds to defense, rather than programs to better the lives of many Ethiopians who still live in primitive conditions.

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