A new front in the global struggle for Islamist rule is emerging in Africa. And there are worrisome signs that battles between Somalia's rising Union of Islamic Courts (IUC) and the country's foundering Western-backed government might soon engulf the entire Horn of Africa in a regional war.
Last week, the UN Security Council voted to send peacekeeping forces to Somalia, a move the Islamists say would be met with holy war. But neighboring Ethiopia isn't waiting for the UN. As the Islamists continue to take town after town away from Somalia's transitional government, and to march closer to its border, Ethiopia is gearing up for all-out war. Meanwhile, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Sudan are eyeing the conflict and taking sides.
"The fact that the UN resolution was backed by the US suggests that it puts Somalia into the global war on terror, and that has the potential to mobilize a lot of countries and groups that have been divorced from Somalia thus far," says Matt Bryden a consultant with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Ethiopia has been sending troops across the border for months and its parliament last week approved a resolution of self-defense against Somalia in the event of war.
"We have said, OK, the Islamic Courts are a fact in Somalia, so let's sit down and negotiate," says a senior Ethiopian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But the UIC is not interested in solving this matter peacefully. Whenever we negotiate with them, before the ink is dry, they are taking more territory."
"We are not in a hurry to engage in fighting in Somalia, but if we are forced, we will defend ourselves," he says.
This weekend, Somalia saw the fiercest fighting yet between forces of the UIC and the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government.
A senior military official of the transitional government confirmed the fighting, without giving numbers for casualties, but UIC vice chairman Sheikh Sharif immediately claimed that his nation was under attack by foreign forces, and reaffirmed the UIC's call for a jihad, or religious struggle, to remove them. "We have inflicted harm on Ethiopian troops. Let us fight against the Ethiopians."
As a country with no central government for more than 15 years, Somalia has become a dangerous playground for other people's wars. Neighboring countries, such as Eritrea and Ethiopia, use Somalia as a proxy war to fight each other, placing their own troops in Somalia supporting opposing sides of the internal civil war. Ethiopian separatist groups such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front use Somalia as a base to fight for independence from Ethiopia. Most worrisome to the Western world, however, is that the lack of central control has allowed extremist groups to bring their pro-Al Qaeda agenda into Africa.
But the increasingly open movements of Ethiopian troops in Somalia are fast becoming an emotional unifying force for the Islamists, who are calling on Somalis to defend their national sovereignty.
Debate over sending peacekeepers
"I think in its present form, a foreign peacekeeping mission is more likely to exacerbate the problem," says Mr. Bryden. Small groups of foreign forces will have difficulty holding their own against Somali fighters, who specialize in hit-and-run attacks with their truck-mounted machine guns, he says.
But more troublesome is that foreign troops will play into the hands of the Islamists.
In any case, many Ethiopian officials and experts say that they have no choice but to fight. The looming war in Somalia is part of the unfinished business of Ethiopia's two-year border war with Eritrea, which ended in exhaustion rather than a negotiated peace treaty. Ethiopian officials allege that the rise of Somalia's Islamists was made possible by Eritrean logistical support, and a UN Monitoring Group report has charged that Eritrea, Egypt, Djibouti, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan have all contributed funds, arms, and technical support to help Somalia's Islamists take control.
Medhane Tadesse, an Ethiopian historian, says that Ethiopia has been forced into a corner by its neighbors, and will have to come out fighting.
"The idea of Eritrea is to get back at Ethiopia. The Arab bloc are doing this as part of a global Islamic issue," says Mr. Tadesse, director of the Center for Policy Research and Dialogue in Addis Ababa.
Tadesse says Ethiopia must fight, and the sooner the better. "The Islamists consider themselves revolutionaries, and somebody should stop them. Unless you do that, the Islamists may go short of targets before they go short of bullets," he says.
Abdikarim Farah, ambassador of the Somali transitional government, welcomed last week's UN resolution to arm his government and provide peacekeepers. "Whether this is a proxy war or not, it will happen, and if the Islamists succeed, it is going to be a regional conflict," he says.
But in a country that was once predominantly Christian, but is now 50 percent Muslim, all eyes are turning toward what Ethiopian Muslims would do if war was declared on another Muslim country.
Sheikh Sayeed Hassan, an ethnic Somali who runs a khat beit, where men come to chew khat, a leaf chewed for its stimulating effects, says that Ethiopia's Muslim community is hoping that war can be averted.
"People inside Somalia, they are saying that we have been fighting among ourselves for 60 years, but now, when the Islamic Courts are uniting the country, why do the foreign governments want to intervene?" says Sheikh Sayeed. "I think if foreign troops come, the Somali people will react."
He sighs. "Every day we expect war, but so far, there is no serious fighting. So we hope the government [of Ethiopia] will change its mind."