WHEN the first wave of Marines arrived in Somalia a month ago, one of their first actions was to set up roadblocks at strategic intersections around Mogadishu. The tactical purpose of these roadblocks may have been otherwise, but their instant practical effect was to curb the roving bands of armed thugs that had terrorized the population for months. Crowds of excited Somalis congregated around each roadblock, cheering whenever guns were found and confiscated.
It alarms and perplexes Somalis that those Marine roadblocks have now mostly been dismantled and the guns that were hidden to avoid confiscation have begun reappearing on the streets. As so often happens in such matters, the solid citizens who carried guns purely for their own personal protection (the great majority) have been slower to rearm themselves than the thieves and looters.
Each movement of the heavily armed Marine forces pushes a wave of lawless violence ahead of it, as gunmen take advantage of fleeting opportunities to rob or pillage one more time. And a Marine force that passes through a village or community without leaving a detachment behind to maintain security leaves a power vacuum in its wake that free-lance bandits are quick to fill.
If any single sentiment unites this country, it is the hope that the United States Marines will disarm the gun-toters so that daily life can return to normal and people can move about without fear.
More fundamentally, Somali clan leaders hope that eliminating guns from the political equation will allow normal contacts across clan lines to resume and permit a genuine political dialogue to begin, with the sort of free debate that is essential to resolving the disputes that plague this fragmented nation. As it is now, venturing a few blocks down the street to chat with a friend who happens to belong to a different clan can be dangerous, even fatal.
Some guns are easier to control than others. Those in the hands of more-or-less organized clan militia (which include some very heavy weaponry indeed - tanks, anti-aircraft guns, recoilless rifles, mortars) are probably easiest to inventory and hardest to hide. US Ambassador Robert Oakley has successfully arm-twisted the two chief Hawiya faction leaders into agreeing to warehouse these weapons at neutral locations, at least those not already moved up-country for safe-keeping.
More dangerous for the average Somali citizen, and much harder to control, are the thousands and thousands of small arms - AK-47s, Uzis, M-16s - in the hands of loosely organized bandits, freebooters, and "security guards."
The vast majority of these thugs take instructions from no one and will certainly not turn in their weapons at neutral warehouses.
Virtually every Somali you meet has a terrifying story of having been victimized by these thugs - their homes invaded in the dead of night, their shirts and pants taken off them at gunpoint, their children bound and gagged, their food, furniture, radios, pots and pans carried off.
REALISTICALLY, there is no way 30,000 or even 300,000 foreign troops can disarm this warrior nation, which surely has more guns than people by a wide margin. What the Marines might realistically be expected to do, however, is to curb the intimidating use of those guns long enough to allow the potential dialogue to begin addressing the root causes of the country's disorder.
Without becoming entangled in an endless search-and-destroy exercise, the Marines could make an important contribution to promoting civil debate and fostering eventual reconciliation:
* By reestablishing the roadblocks and resuming weapons searches at strategic intersections around Mogadishu and in other towns now under their control, and on the highways leading in and out of town;
* By announcing very clearly to the Somali public (via radio, leaflets, mobile loudspeakers) that carrying firearms of any sort, concealed or visible, mounted or hand-held, in towns, on roads, or at relief feeding centers will not be tolerated;
* By summarily confiscating and destroying any weapons they come across at checkpoints or on patrol, no questions asked;
* And, just occasionally, by sending out the Cobra helicopters to chase down and destroy a few of the machine gun-carrying "technicals" that are likely to continue roaming rural roads in search of booty.
There is an urgent role for others, too. The coalition commanders in charge of Operation Restore Hope need to turn their attention now to reestablishing Somalia's national police, a civilian force that in its day was one of the country's proudest and most effective institutions.
In the 1960s, under democratic Somali governments, American Peace Corps advisers helped the National Police win universal respect and broad cooperation. Today, with just a modicum of support and supervision, the National Police could again become an agency for stabilizing the country politically.
The resurgence of armed violence since the Marines' arrival has prompted US commanders to announce new, "tougher" regulations aimed at controlling weapons that require more than one person to fire, or that fire anything larger than a bullet. But the new regulations apparently do nothing to curb the far more widespread assault rifles.
Collecting these guns won't solve the underlying political problems that brought this country to its present plight. But making clear we won't abide the use of guns for intimidation purposes of any sort would at least give the process of civilized political dialogue a chance of succeeding.