THE UN mission to Somalia is accomplishing little militarily, may be delaying peace, and is hamstrung by corruption, according to United States diplomats and key private relief officials.
As a result, senior US State Department officials are debating whether to pull out remaining US personnel in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, by mid-September, and relocate them in Nairobi.
The State Department's East Africa regional office recommended such a pullout on Tuesday, citing ``absence of progress toward national political reconciliation, difficulty of conducting business, the continuing deterioration of security, and the expense of maintaining the mission.''
A pullout could ``tip the balance'' for some private relief agencies, which might feel less safe without the US presence, a US diplomat says. It could speed up reassessment by a number of countries on whether to keep military personnel there under the UN flag, the diplomat adds.
The United States pulled most of its troops out of Somalia in March, but left behind about 55 Marines guarding the US Embassy in Mogadishu, a handful of military advisers, and about 20 civilian employees.
In a report to the Security Council Aug. 17, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed extending the mandate by at least one month, until the end of October. But he also recommended a quick reduction of UN troop strength from about 18,700 to 15,000.
The UN ``should continue for a little longer to give the Somali leaders the opportunity to demonstrate that they are ready to cooperate with the United Nations and with each other in order to bring their country back from the abyss,'' Mr. Boutros-Ghali said in the report.
But evidence is growing that the mission is crumbling, both militarily and politically.
An attack Monday by well-armed Somalis, which killed seven UN soldiers from India and wounded nine others, was the worst clash since US and other Western troops pulled out of the country in March. It is the latest example of UN forces being outgunned or outmaneuvered.
On July 31, Somali gunmen loyal to militia leader Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed overran some 169 Zimbabwean UN troops in Belet Uen, killing one. The others were later released.
The UN mission appears to have run aground in its efforts to reconcile rival Somali factions. ``There's nothing happening on the political front,'' says a US diplomat. ``I think we may be prolonging getting to a political solution'' by continuing the UN mission in Somalia.
The UN has brokered a string of so-called peace pacts, only to have them fail as Somali militia leaders denounce them or launch new attacks. ``Maybe if the international audience leaves, Somalis will sort it out themselves,'' says another US diplomat.
But peace may not be at hand anytime soon, the second diplomat adds. ``My concern is that so many good people are victims - hostages to this little clique of warlords - and [cannot] seem to shake them.''
A UN pullout could bring back ``war and famine,'' cautions Omar Hashi, whose father helped found a political party that has opposed General Aideed. But, he adds, the UN has become a ``toothless tiger'' by not disarming gunmen. And Aideed loyalists have profited from the UN, which has hired many of them, bought supplies from them, and rented houses from them, he alleges.
``If the UN goes, it will be dry'' for Aideed in terms of UN-related income, Mr. Hashi says. ``It will trim his wings.''
Part of the problem is the UN Operation in Somalia, says Stephen Tomlin, regional director here for the International Medical Corps. ``I think UNOSOM died a death a long time ago in terms of its impact.''
The presence of a vast quantity of valuable arms and other materiel is posing a ``candy store'' attraction to Somali gunmen, he alleges. ``[UN] troops in Mogadishu have basically been giving away the candy store.''
Mr. Tomlin and the first US diplomat contend that corruption among some troops, including the Egyptians, has resulted in wholesale looting of UN supplies at the airport and port.
``Somalis were coming [to the airport] and driving out with UN cars, putting money into the hands of Egyptian guards,'' Tomlin says. At the port, ``Somalis are buying their way in to steal; it's anarchy.''
``It's absolute corruption; it's awful,'' says the first US diplomat.
Egyptian officials deny the accusations. But the second US diplomat questions whether the denials are credible, adding that it amounts to ``deals'' struck with Somali gunmen to help protect Egyptian and other troops.
Some US officials in Washington have been pressing for the UN to get out of Somalia quickly, citing cost as a key factor. The US pays 30 percent of the tab for the UN Somali operation, reported to cost $1.2 billion a year.