EVEN as leaders of key Somali factions meet to try to revive stalled peace talks and United States troops depart the country in larger numbers, Somalia's prospects for a genuine peace seem increasingly uncertain.
A wide range of Somali politicians, including some of the very ones upon whom peace depends, point to several factors they say are currently working against any lasting settlement:
* One of the main military clan leaders in Somalia, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, is being challenged for political leadership of his ethnic faction, say Monitor sources both within his faction and outside.
That challenge, plus military threats to his forces on two fronts, leave General Aideed, at least temporarily, in an insecure position as far as striking a deal with his military enemies at the on-again, off-again peace talks.
* The accelerating departure of US troops from Somalia encourages Somali armed gangs and militias to lie low until they are gone, hoping to reemerge to face a weaker UN-led force. General Aideed and most other Somali leaders, as well as senior UN officials, criticize the rapid withdrawal.
* The United Nations' "top-down" approach to peace negotiations is seen as ineffective, overlooking the need for more than a handful of generals and politicians to be involved in shaping a lasting peace.
This week, 2,700 Marines are leaving the country, the biggest group to depart Somalia since US troops arrived Dec. 9. The sense that the US is intent on pulling out as quickly as possible is having a negative effect on the situation, many say.
"If they [gangs and militias] see them [US troops] staying for two to three years, they will agree to talks," says Somali political activist Abdullahi Sheikh Mohammed. "But if they think the multinational force will leave in eight months to one year, they will wait and then extract their weapons."
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has insisted from the start that the US should not pull out before disarming gangs - something far from accomplished - and clan militias, something not even attempted.
The central role played by foreign troops was evident Jan. 25, when for the first time, US Army troops accompanied by Belgian paratroopers attacked forces of one of the Somali militia leaders, Gen. Mohammed Siad Hersi, nicknamed "Morgan." He is the son-in-law of Somali dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, deposed in January 1991 by rebels.
Morgan had been threatening the southern coastal city of Kismayo, and ignored repeated US. warnings to back off. Kismayo is nominally under the control of Col. Omar Jess, who is aligned with Aidid. Morgan's forces were stopped.
ON Jan. 30, US troops raided the town of Afgoi, about 45 miles west of Mogadishu. According to a US military spokesman, up to nine highly armed sub clans were setting up roadblocks and ambushing local merchants.
The US troop role has clearly gone beyond the opening up of roads and guarding of food, acknowledged Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, the commander in Somalia, in a press conference. The US military is involved in helping to form a national police force, combating criminal activity, and dealing with some clan disagreements.
A key clan disagreement centers now around General Aideed, who US officials consider to have the strongest militia. At least two men within Aideed's group are challenging his control.
"They want to kick him out," says one Somali political analyst not in Aideed's group, who asked not to be named.
Meanwhile, the source added, "they are using him as a tool." One challenger inside his faction is "telling him not to disarm," this Somali claims.
A source within the Aideed camp, acknowledging the rivalry, says such competition is not unusual within a major movement.
More clan militia confrontations are to be expected prior to any peace settlement, says Ahmed Jama Mousa, former commander of the Somalia National Police Force. "It's a question of jockeying for better positions" prior to any agreement, Mr. Mousa said in an interview.
The UN's role here remains a matter of controversy, with criticism from Somalis and even the US. US special envoy to Somalia Robert Oakley says the UN's approach to peace talks - dealing only with a small number of leaders - has not been effective.
The UN "looks at this thing in a theoretical way," he says. UN officials "design structures from above. We don't think this will work." Mr. Oakley favors working closely with a wider range of leaders, including women, religious and ethnic clan elders, politicians, and military leaders.
Former Somali police commander Jama agrees. Politics works in Somalia "if it starts from the grass roots."