UNITED Nations officials here often describe the fighting in Mogadishu as an exception to the relative peace elsewhere in Somalia.
But over the past two months, a large swath of territory south of this seaside capital, almost to the port of Kismayu, has erupted in fighting between rival Somali ethnic groups, including that of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed.
The fighting south of the capital could herald the outbreak of a new civil war in Somalia, even before US troops leave the country, according to key Somali political analysts, United States officials, and Western relief personnel familiar with the contested region.
The battles - over control of fertile farmland and political power - have seen several Somali ethnic groups previously aligned with General Aideed now fighting against him and his supporters. ``This could be a lining up for the next civil war,'' one US official here says.
So far, Aideed and his supporters, who are probably the best-armed in Somalia, appear to be winning.
One Somali with close contacts to Aideed says the warlord has been getting fresh supplies of both cash and weapons from a variety of foreign sources, an allegation that could not be quickly confirmed.
``I think we're seeing Aideed ... trying to enlarge his support through mafia-type tactics in certain areas of the country,'' says Adm. Jonathan Howe (USN, ret.), the UN special representative to Somalia. ``It's part of this defiance [by Aideed], obstruction of everything the UN is trying to do.''
Gutale Burhan, an Aideed supporter, counters that the Somali National Alliance, which the warlord heads, ``is not asking a better role to play than any other faction'' in Somalia. ``Aideed is not a power [on his own]; his power depends on the people.''
US Special Envoy Robert Oakley started a week of meetings on Nov. 2 with leaders of some of the 15 factions in Mogadishu and with African leaders in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Mr. Oakley planned to hold talks with officials from Aideed's militia, but previous supporters of the warlord express disillusionment over his protracted struggle with UN and US forces in Mogadishu.
``Over 90 percent of the people want peace,'' says a Somali businessman here, who is critical of Aideed. ``They are fed up with war,'' he adds, requesting anonymity.
A non-Somali relief official with considerable experience in Somalia says the conflict in Somalia has entered ``a whole new phase.'' What could develop next, the official says, is a bigger civil war than the one from 1991 to 1993, in which hundreds of thousands of people starved after fleeing clan fighting following the downfall of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre, the longtime dictator.
In the wake of President Clinton's decision to withdraw US forces from Somalia at the end of next March, UN and relief officials have been expressing serious doubts that the country will be able to avoid widespread conflict.
``There's a general disintegration going on in southern Somalia,'' the relief official said. ``The UN is really worried; this could really spoil their record and prompt the US to be isolationist and the UN defeated.''
Disarmament is the only way out, but ``Who will disarm them?'' the relief official says of the groups fighting in Somalia. Battles mark broken alliances
The battles in the region south of Mogadishu, some of which have been major, are in an area that includes some of the most fertile farmland in Somalia. Part of it is irrigated by canals. Among towns caught up in the fighting have been Afgoi, Qoryooley, Merca, Brava, and Jilib.
The UN has been encouraging formation of local district councils in most of these towns, as part of a buildup to a transitional national council and national elections by March 1995. But local power struggles over the makeup of some of the councils have erupted into pitched battles.
A group previously aligned with Aideed's Habar-Gedir clan, the Hawadley, has split from the warlord, and the two ethnic-based militias have begun fighting each other.
Both groups are subclans of the Hawiye; other Hawiye subclans have also begun pulling away from Aideed, according to Admiral Howe.
Some Hawadley contend Aideed has not fairly shared political power within his own organization. ``Most Hawadley were aligned with Aideed, but they realize they were left behind,'' says one politically active Hawadley. He complains that despite previous support for Aideed, the Hawadley got only minimal key posts in the general's political structure.
Another Hawadley, Abdi Osman Farah, says, ``Aideed thinks he's winner over [the UN] and other clans. He sees the Hawadley as the only ones who can fight him. He wants to be president ... to capture the whole country. I would not accept this.''
Mr. Farah was deputy chairman of the United Somali Congress, a political and military organization that includes Aideed's Somali National Alliance.
``If the UN leaves this country, the whole of Somalia will break out in war,'' Farah says. After pausing as loud, low-flying US helicopters pass by, he adds: ``The majority will be against Aideed. It will be a big war. The UN should remain.''