AS Dahir, a Somali driver, approached a checkpoint manned by the United States Marines and the French Foreign Legion, his machine gun lay on the floor of the back seat.
In the first few days after the Western troops arrived, he had left the gun at home. Now, however, the reemergence of such weapons in the hands of Somalis here who fear armed robbery, highlights a dilemma facing the United Nations military operation: Can the problem of armed robbery of food, which created a crisis of mass starvation and the need for UN troops, be solved if no attempt is made to confiscate weapons?
US military officials here say they will seize only those weapons that pose "a direct threat" to their troops. They say their mission is limited to protecting food distribution, not policing or achieving a political settlement.
But Somalis and Western relief officials have joined in saying that this approach is not enough. They point out that most gunmen have fled the Marines, thus avoiding a "direct threat." These officials say the Marines should go after them. According to the Associated Press, US officials confirmed yesterday that UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had asked the US to accept a role that includes disarming feuding clans.
"Unless the guns are collected from the whole country, everything will be the same," says Ali Duraleh, a member of a Somali committee here trying to restart public schools.
And without such a collection of arms, "the significance of the troops coming in [to Somalia] will be completely void," adds Abdullahi Yassin, another member of the education committee and a former regional education officer.
The US policy on disarmament may yet change. Maj. Steve Little, a liaison officer between Washington and Somalia, told the Monitor the policy is still "developing."
But it may already be too late to the get bulk of the weapons, say some relief officials who charge that the US made a serious mistake in letting many armed gunmen escape.
Bob Koepp, director of the Lutheran World Federation office in Nairobi, Kenya, says that instead of taking control of Mogadishu alone last week, the Marines also "should have taken Baidoa and Kismayo," two relief distribution towns menaced by armed Somali food looters. "They could have bottled them [the gunmen and their weapons] up and destroyed them," he says.
Lacking security, many relief personnel have been evacuated from Baidoa and food distribution has been reduced.
"The purpose [of the military intervention] was to provide security,' says William Berquist, an official with Catholic Relief Services in Baidoa. "They have failed in Baidoa."
Somali gangs and free-lance thieves, with heavily armed vehicles known as "technicals," were still menacing Baidoa, Kismayo, and Belet Huen, another key food distribution point, over the weekend, UN and private relief officials said. A large number of "technicals" also fled Mogadishu toward the Kenyan and Ethiopian borders, they say.
US Marine Col. Fred Peck told reporters here that such developments are not the main concern. "We're not looking for confrontation.... If we see weapons openly displayed in an area over which we hold control, we will consider them hostile."
On Saturday two US helicopter gunships reportedly destroyed three armed Somali vehicles in Mogadishu after the helicopters were fired on. The helicopters were not damaged. It was not immediately known if any Somalis were killed.
Even these actions, however, are too isolated and limited, argue the Somali educators Yassin and Duraleh, both of whom would prefer that Western troops surround the city and conduct house-to-house searches for arms. Colonel Peck, however, insisted "We will not be searching houses or cars." That, he said, will be the work of a Somali police force, whenever it is formed.
As for the arms of the two major warring factions, both sides have agreed to withdraw weapons from Mogadishu into camps. But Somalis caution that many weapons will be hidden elsewhere.
In an exception to the no-search rule, marines detected but did not seize a large arms cache last week in a building near the US Embassy. But either because the weapons were not a "direct threat" to US forces, or because it was learned that they belong to Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, one of the main protagonists in the civil war in Mogadishu, the arms were not seized.
Roadblock searches for arms were abandoned late last week on US orders, to the disgruntlement of French officers, after two Somalis were killed and seven others injured at a roadblock Thursday night. As the Somalis sped past the roadblock, French Legionnaires opened fire and US marines joined in. The resulting crash, not the bullets, killed the unarmed Somalis, Peck said.
But those killings have left a bad taste in the mouths of many Somalis interviewed here. "The people are now against the French troops," one Somali says.