AMERICAN troops in Somalia plan to ``reestablish security'' in the capital by taking it street by street with ground forces, according to a US official close to planning for the operation here. It is a potentially dangerous tactic that expands on the troops' original mission of reinforcing and ``protecting'' United States and United Nations forces on the ground.
Some 5,000 US soldiers, backed by 10,000 logistics and communications specialists, will be deployed with heavy armor to retake control of the streets of Mogadishu, largely lost since UN troops assumed leadership of the UN operation in May.
The action will ``be provocative, yes, but that's the cost of doing business,'' the US official said. It will, however, be carried out ``hand-in-hand with a political solution'' that is already under way in the city.
The largest contingents of the 29,000-man UN Army - the Pakistani and Indian troops, who number 5,000 and 4,000 - aren't capable of launching the operation because ``they've lost the respect'' of Somali gunmen, he said.
As the US military buildup in Somalia continues, Somalis are receiving conflicting signals about whether their feud with the UN will end peacefully.
The blood-stained streets of this capital - where about 66 UN peacekeeping troops and at least 600 Somalis have died in clashes over four months - were calm Oct. 11, as joint diplomatic and military efforts to find peace were undertaken.
US Special Envoy Robert Oakley, who arrived on Oct. 10 to break the cycle of violence, met Oct. 11 and 12 with leaders of rival clans and US diplomats, but kept quiet about his mission except to confirm that he would not directly meet with Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed or his representatives.
Among Somalis, hopes were high that a ``last chance'' cease-fire between UN troops and General Aideed might soon be signed and agreement reached to include the warlord in plans for any future government.
But US shelling on the night of Oct. 11 by AC-130 Specter gunships - ``target practice'' on the northern edge of the city - caused some Somalis to doubt US intentions.
On Oct. 11, a clandestine radio station controlled by Aideed urged UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to postpone a meeting on Somalia planned for Oct. 20. Representatives of the Organization of African Unity, the Islamic Conference, and the Arab League - organizations to which Somalia belonged before 1991 - were to participate.
The bulk of 5,000 US reinforcements, which will double the US presence, are expected to arrive in Mogadishu this week, though the airport is already littered with fresh Cobra attack helicopters, tanks, and US transport planes disgorging troops, all of them sheltered by makeshift walls of sandbags.
Aideed has been hunted by the UN since June, when 24 Pakistani UN troops were killed in simultaneous ambushes, blamed by the UN on Aideed. But the UN campaign to arrest Aideed has taken a personalized and vicious turn, shifting the original UN relief mission here to one of a manhunt by 28,000 troops.
Outrage in the US over the deaths of up to 17 US soldiers last week - plus graphic footage of bodies being dragged through dusty streets by cheering Somalis and a US soldier, Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant, being held hostage - spurred President Clinton to send Ambassador Oakley to find a diplomatic way out.
Still, UN Envoy Adm. Jonathan Howe, an American who has been the architect of the narrowing UN mandate to capture Aideed, insists that the UN ``reward'' of $25,000 on the warlord's head still stands.
``We've got a coup d'etat of the UN by the United States,'' says one UN official, who says that Admiral Howe's days as the UN leader here are numbered. The UN's policy of searching for Aideed has proved disastrous, turning even once-sympathetic Somalis into gun-wielding supporters of the warlord. The stature of Aideed, who clearly wants to lead all Somalis, has never been higher.
``If Aideed is allowed back to negotiate, then there is hope for a solution,'' says Mohammed Ali, a Somali businessman, as UN helicopters buzz overhead, carrying Oakley to his next meeting. ``The people are happy because a cease-fire is in sight, but the UN can't do anything without the US behind it. There is calm, but if the UN attacks now, then there will be no more peace here. This is the last chance.''
The US show of force confuses some Somalis, as AC-130 gunships pounded practice targets twice this week, and two fighter jets roared over the capital during the afternoons of Oct. 11 and 12.
UN officials say that such tactics serve to remind Aideed of what backs up US resolve to end the conflict, because the last fly-past of US fighters in June prefaced massive aerial bombing of Aideed's weapons caches.
Leaflets dropped from UN helicopters on Oct. 11 seemed to intone that the UN military hunt was still on, despite the peace efforts: ``The bandit Aideed stands in the way of peace, UNOSOM [the UN operation in Somalia] welcomes all peace-loving Somalis,'' it read.
UN spokesmen confirmed that they were printed by the UN, but sources in Howe's office said that the special envoy was ``furious'' that they had been dropped at this politically delicate time.
``People are waiting,'' said Mr. Ali, accounting for the current calm. ``They have big tanks and helicopters to attack a big government, but this is no solution for Somalis. If Clinton wants peace, why do they deploy all those troops?''