Swift justice, long haul

Somalia | After the rout of the Islamic Courts Union, Mogadishu's transitional government must move quickly to establish law and order

Issue: "Hope or hype?," Jan. 20, 2007

Almost half of the patients at Kenya's missionary Kijabe Hospital are Somalis, and many of them fly in from Mogadishu with a singular problem: gunshot wounds. They are daily tribulations in Somalia, where most men tote AK-47s and other arms. The country has seen 16 years of lawless warlordism and crime.

By contrast, the last six months have brought too much law, as Islamists took power and instilled Shariah rule. Now they, too, have gone, shoved out by Ethiopian forces. What's left are Somalia's feeble interim government and an equally feeble hope that peace may stick this time.

At the hospital, Somali pastor Mohamed Omar Ibrahim has heard general relief from his countrymen about the Islamist defeat. But "if the government does not bring law and order very quickly, people will change their mind," he told WORLD. "We can only talk about today. We cannot talk about tomorrow."

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Today for Somalis means waiting to see if the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government, formed in 2004, can stand on its own. Until now, its leaders have been based in Baidoa, southwest of Mogadishu, too weak to claim the capital. With the protection of Ethiopian forces, President Abdullahi Yusuf set foot in Mogadishu Jan. 8 for the first time since he became leader.

The same day brought another surprise: a U.S. operation in the country for the first time since 1993, when the failed "Black Hawk Down" mission killed 18 servicemen. This time, the mission was to root out al-Qaeda members reportedly driven into southern forests with the Islamists. Somalia's potential to become a terrorist haven-particularly under the auspices of the Islamic Courts Union-has long worried U.S. officials.

Air strikes involving at least one AC-130 gunship killed eight militants, officials said. Navy ships also moved to Somalia's southern coast to intercept any terrorists fleeing by sea. U.S. officials say top al-Qaeda terrorists were the target of the strikes: explosives expert Abu Taha al-Sudani, a reportedly close associate of Osama bin Laden; and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, responsible for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 225. It is unclear if the men died in the U.S. attacks.

Since 2002, the United States has been ready to ferret out al-Qaeda terrorists in the Horn of Africa, forming a joint military and civilian task force based in Djibouti. The task force also does aid work, digging wells and air-dropping food and mosquito nets into flood-hit eastern Kenya last month.

Wearied by warlords, Somalis initially welcomed the Islamic Courts Union, a disparate group that involved both extremists and moderates. They quickly established some stability, defeating warlords in Mogadishu, opening ports, and returning looted property. The city's residents even felt safe enough to walk their streets again. But hardliners steered the Courts, and Shariah law soon meant chopping off limbs and executing criminals; a ban on khat, a popular and mildly narcotic leaf; and segregating women. The Courts banned movies and entertainment.

History and old enmities explain why Ethiopia has plunged into Somalia's woes. Somali leaders in the 1970s dreamed of creating a "Greater Somalia" that would include the eastern, largely Somali tribal areas of Ethiopia and Kenya, and their ambitions triggered territorial wars.

Last year, one Islamic Courts hardliner, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, resurrected the expansionist idea, proclaiming: "We will leave no stone unturned to integrate our Somali brothers in Kenya and Ethiopia and restore their freedom to live with their ancestors in Somalia."

For Ethiopia's part, leaders there worried that the Islamists would support secessionists in the country's Ogaden region, populated mostly by ethnic Somalis. The two countries have been enemies for decades, fighting territorial wars that stem from borders drawn during colonial times. Now Ethiopian forces are keeping the peace in Somalia, but leaders have said they do not want to stay more than a few weeks.

Given the longstanding enmity, a quick exit may help keep the calm. Somalis who have talked to Omar have said, "It's good that the fundamentalists are out, but we are not sure about the Ethiopians staying longer." The problem, however, is that the interim government needs a peacekeeping force-and one without Ethiopians-to consolidate its control that the UN backed before war broke out.

The restiveness over Somalia's new direction extends across seas to Somali-Americans. In Washington Jan. 9, a group called the Somali Diaspora Network held a press conference at the National Press Club, and panelists said the Ethiopian invasion and U.S. air strikes would likely cause more instability, not less.

Panelist Asha Ahmed Abdalla is one of the 275 members of Somalia's transitional parliament, and she criticized President Yusuf for collaborating secretly with Ethiopia. "Parliament has final say on what the president [does]," she said, and "parliament has not sent any invitation to Addis."


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