DESPITE today's departure of 850 United States soldiers from Somalia and early predictions of a quick withdrawal by the Bush administration, US military and civilian officials here acknowledge that the need for US troops is far from over.
The first group of US Marines, 850 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, left Somalia today, to be replaced by Australian troops.
Marine Col. Fred Peck, who announced the withdrawal Sunday, indicated that the country could be stable by the end of the month. But in a Monitor interview yesterday he said the US would not make a premature transfer of military control to the United Nations.
"Just because of the pride we have in the military, I don't think you'll see us having a sloppy handover," he said. "We're under no pressure to be out on a certain date. We'll take as long as it takes."
A lot has changed since the first Marines stepped ashore Dec. 9. Looting of relief supplies has decreased sharply as US and other foreign troops guard food convoys. Heavy weapons have been seized from militias and gangs. The streets of a number of towns, including the capital, have fewer guns in sight than at any time in the past two years, when rebels ousted Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre and the country fell into anarchy.
And 14 Somali factions meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, agreed Jan. 15 to an immediate cease-fire, disarmament, and release of prisoners of war. A national reconciliation conference is planned to open in Addis Ababa March 15 to negotiate an interim government for Somalia.
Even so, say US and relief officials here, a sudden handover to the UN could leave Somalia about where it was before Dec. 9: engulfed in anarchy and civil war, with a high rate of starvation and looters seizing many of the relief supplies.
The UN, Colonel Peck says, has yet to pass resolutions for the transfer that would cover command structures and rules for engagement.
Robert Oakley, chief US envoy to Somalia and a former ambassador here, says he is committed to a long rebuilding process in Somalia, but says the US must avoid trying to impose a political structure.
The US tried to engineer democracy in South Vietnam, only to watch it collapse when the Americans pulled out, says Ambassador Oakley, who was stationed in Vietnam.
"We have resisted the temptation to design the political architecture in Somalia," he told the Monitor yesterday.
The strong foreign military presence here has helped to "create the environment" for Somalis to change their society themselves, he says.
Oakley points out that the two main Somali factions in the capital are planning to launch a temporary police force drawn from members of the two rival sub-clans of the Hawiye - the Abgala and Habar-Gedir. They are likely to make joint patrols.
"All the factional leaders realize the time for making war is over," he says.
Somalis interviewed here desperately want a police force. "The looters have the guns," despite some weapons being seized by foreign troops, says Abdullahi Mohamed Gall, a former regional educational officer in the Siad Barre government.
The preliminary peace talks in Addis Ababa were a breakthrough, according to both Oakley and a variety of Somalis.
"There have been agreements before with no results," says Prof. Hussein Tohow Farah, a member of a Somali educational committee here, which is trying to re-open public schools.
"But not all the rebels were included. This time all came. So everyone is expecting to get peace."
"Our country has had two years of starvation, civil war, and destruction," says Rashid Osman Ali, a colonel under Mr. Siad Barre. "We don't tolerate any more."
Delegates at the talks split over who should attend the March 15 national reconciliation conference.
Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, one of the main military leaders in Somalia, wants to limit the conference to the generals who won the war against Siad Barre. His rivals are holding out for a broader representation, including intellectuals and clan elders, as well as militia and political leaders.
Abdull-Rizak Mohamoun, chairman of a new political party, the United Somali Salvation Youth, says the younger generation should be invited to the talks. "We know the character of the older generation. We know their tricks. We can bring new ideas," he says.