Keeping Somalia's Fragile Peace

SOMALIA'S warring factions formally concluded talks March 29 with a pact that produced the first signs of structure for a country wracked by bitter civil war, clan rivalries, and famine for more than two years. At the same time, the United Nations approved an unprecedented peacekeeping mission to the East African state.

The stage is now set for the long, gradual rebuilding of a country that has no government, civil structure, and bleak economic prospects. One month from now, the UN takes over the international forces now under United States command. When it does, it must assert its strength quickly to reinforce a fragile political settlement.

The country's 15 factions agreed to a transitional national council made up of three representatives from each of 18 regions. Women, who previously were denied a public voice, will fill one-third of these seats. The council will oversee social, economic, and humanitarian rebuilding for two years. The factions also agreed to total disarmament within 90 days.

In New York, the UN Security Council approved a peacekeeping force of 28,000 troops - the largest contingent of its kind ever. They are authorized to use any means necessary to maintain peace, disarm Somalia's warring clans, and protect relief workers.

These measures are positive, but the time for congratulations is short. Tensions persist between factions in the southern port of Kismayu. Supporters of rival warlords in Mogadishu, the capital, are already squabbling over how much power they will have in the council. Clan loyalties remain strong.

The council must provide a level field for all parties if each region is to benefit from reconstruction efforts. This is why disarmament is crucial.

Strengthened by its new mandate, the UN should complete the disarmament of all factions before establishing the council. This will help ensure that the political process is not held captive by the faction with the most weapons. Then its leaders and the international community can concentrate fully on rebuilding communities at the local level. Schools, agriculture, safe water supplies, civil police forces, health care - these are the building blocks of a renewed Somali society and economy.

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