IN just five months, all but a few United States troops will be gone from Somalia, according to President Clinton's deadline.
Somalis note with irony that young fighters wearing flip-flops and armed mostly with machine guns have forced the world's best-equipped Army to turn and run.
But Somali intellectuals express concern that if the country has not achieved peace by the end of next March, the US exit will only enhance prospects of renewed civil war and famine. And, they add, the withdrawal will weaken America's credibility elsewhere.
``The US wants to be a superpower without risk,'' laments a Somali businessman here, who wishes the troops would stay longer.
For many Somalis, the world, which long ignored the cries of the starving in 1991 and most of 1992, is once again distancing itself. ``You're looking at the mop up crew,'' says one US official here, describing the US presence now.
It is widely assumed that United Nations troops from most other major countries, including France, Germany, and Belgium, will pull out of Somalia by the time the US troops withdraw, leaving any remaining UN troops with about as much military punch as a deflated balloon.
``There's not much time left; everyone's leaving,'' says Somali merchant Abdi Momen, a University of Beirut graduate, assessing the time remaining from the standpoint of Somalia's long history.
Mogadishu dates from at least the 10th century as an Islamic trading post on the Indian Ocean. The Somali people fought religious wars against the Christians in the 16th Century, then took on British, Ethiopian, and Italian colonizers in the 20th century.
Mr. Momen would like to see disarmament of warring factions and a political settlement engineered before US troops leave. Without that, many Somalis say, there will be little peace here.
A new civil war may already have begun between rival clans over key towns and farmland south of Mogadishu (See story, Page 1). Inter-clan fighting continues in this battered city.
Dahir Abdel-Kadir, a young Somali teacher, sits on a curb in a hotel parking lot, hunkered down between two cars and waiting for nearby heavy shooting between two rival Somali factions to subside.
``This firing has become the order of the day,'' he says. Somalis have grown accustomed to such gunfights. Within a couple of hours, the streets return to a bustle of packed busses, cars, and swarms of pedestrians.
Some Somalis want the UN or US to eliminate both Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed and his archrival, Mohamed Ali Mahdi.
``Unless they [the foreign troops] kill both Aideed and Ali Mahdi, there will be fighting - worse than the last time,'' says another Somali businessman, referring to the 1991-92 civil war, which engulfed the capital for several months.
But others - including General Aideed, whom even the elite US Rangers and Delta Force commandos could not catch - are happy the troops are leaving. Aideed never trusted the UN, and has said he wants only aid from the US, even though he's still officially on the US ``wanted'' list.
``Somalis does not need foreign troops,'' Aideed told reporters at a press conference here on Oct. 27.
Some US military personnel here are frustrated. ``You tell the military community to solve this [catch Aideed; disarm factions] and in 72 hours it will be done,'' says one such official. ``Instead of taking snipers out, you take the building out.''
But some diplomats say that view is too simplistic. The inter-clan feuds, they argue, are not linked to just one man.