For many Somalis living in this semiarid region at the mouth of the Red Sea, it was a strange sight to behold: American soldiers in desert camouflage uniforms and wide-brim bush hats landing on Somali soil, roaring through the scrubland in open jeeps and waving to nomads. American soldiers repairing Somali roads under a blazing hot sun. American logistics teams at Berbera's deepwater port checking communications equipment.
The sudden, high-visibility United States presence was the result of the multination Bright Star '82 exercises in the Middle East in November. It was the first landing of US forces on Somali soil. Four years earlier President Siad Barre booted out the Soviets, expelling 5,000 military and civilian advisers.
The Somalis definitely want the United States here. In fact, they want a US presence here so badly that they are peeved by what they view as an extraordinarily slow pace of US moves into this country.
The US sent 250 troops to Somalia in the Bright Star operation. There are plans for larger-scale assistance, including US installation of antiaircraft equipment at Somalia's Soviet-built national airport, widening of the Berbera port from two to seven berths, and stationing of 100 US advisers in Somalia to help the nation's armed forces maintain the newly equiped facilities. US aid is scheduled to amount to $42 million over two years.
Many Somalis hoped Bright Star would bring an immediate, permanent contingent of Americans, and were disappointed when US soldiers went home after the exercise. Tradesmen, for one, were unhappy.
''When the Russians were here,'' said Ismail Tutua, an elderly ship's mechanic in Hargeisa, 120 miles from Berbera, ''they only brought guns but no money. They were a bad people. But the Americans, they have money and will buy in our shops.'' Mr. Tutua, like many capitalist-minded northern Somalis, was dejected when his hope in the Americans was dashed.
The Somali government is irked by delays in delivery of promised US equipment. So far, nothing has arrived. When told that such things take time, they sputtered with envy at the speed with which the US moved to aid Sudan with
''We are normally a very patient people, said one government official in Hargeisa. ''But this is trying our patience to the limit.''
There are also strong feelings that Somalia is being used to suit Soviet-American geopolitics. Still, the Mogadishu regime has high expections of US military assistance.
''When the Somalis talk of military aid,'' noted one West European diplomat, ''they hark back to the time when the Soviet Union helped develop the 50,000 -strong Somali Army into one of the best in Africa.''
They are especially eager to have such aid in the wake of the recent tripartite pact among Libya, Ethiopia, and South Yemen.
But the US has shown no sign of wanting to duplicate the scale of Soviet aid. ''Our sole intention is to help maintain a credible defense for Somalia,'' said one US official.
US explicitly stated that Bright Star was never intended to bring a permanent US presence. One of the principal functions of Bright Star was to examine the conditions of the Berbera airfield. The base has the longest airstrip in Africa.
In August 1980 Washington signed an agreement with Mogadishu for ''use of facilities'' at the airfield in exchange for the $42 million worth of military assistance.
Despite the new US-Somali link, American attitudes toward the Barre regime are reticent, if not wary - particularly with regard to Somalia's aspirations in the Ogaden. Barre claims he wants to rebuild his shattered armed forces for ''defensive purposes only,'' but the Somalia-Ethiopia conflict continues to threaten stability in the horn of Africa.
''What it boils down to is that the Americans really don't trust the Somalis, '' remarked a Western European diplomat.
Both US and Western European analysts express reservations about establishing a permanent US military presence in Somalia while the Somali armed forces are rebuilding their strength.
''This would only provide the Ethiopians and the Soviets with yet another pretext and severely inhibit any possible solutions to the Ogaden questions,'' said one diplomat. ''I think it might also completely prevent the Ethiopians from ever shaking off the Soviets if they should want to do so.''
The Barre regime has made mild threats of returning to the Soviet fold if the US does supply aid more swiftly. But most observers consider this completely out of the question.
''We are definitely part of the Western camp. Not just American but also European,'' said a Hargeisa resident. ''And I would like to think that it is by choice and not just necessity.''