[DEHAI] (Tricityherald) Islamist offensive leaves West's Somalia strategy in tatters

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From: Biniam Haile \(SWE\) (eritrea.lave@comhem.se)
Date: Fri May 15 2009 - 17:06:58 EDT

Friday, May. 15, 2009
Islamist offensive leaves West's Somalia strategy in tatters

By SHASHANK BENGALI NAIROBI, Kenya A major offensive by Islamic rebels
has brought Somalia's internationally backed government close to
collapse and renewed the possibility that a militant Islamist regime
that allegedly has ties to al-Qaida could seize control of the East
African nation.
That would be a devastating blow to U.S. counter-terrorism and
anti-piracy efforts in East Africa, where al-Qaida operatives bombed the
U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. American intelligence
officials accuse the rebels' spiritual leader, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys,
of helping to shelter suspects in those attacks, and since 2007, U.S.
forces have launched airstrikes at terrorist targets in Somalia.
After a week of heavy mortar and rocket attacks that have left at least
135 people dead and sent tens of thousands fleeing, the insurgents have
moved to within a half-mile of the hilltop presidential palace in
Mogadishu, the Somali capital, which is being guarded by African Union
peacekeepers with tanks and armored vehicles.
The Islamists, reportedly joined by hundreds of foreign fighters, didn't
move on the palace Friday and almost certainly would lose a ground
confrontation with the better-armed, 4,300-man peacekeeping force.
Still, Aweys, a veteran hard-liner who U.S. officials charge is linked
to al-Qaida, vowed to topple the government and institute "the Islamic
state of Somalia."
Less than four months after a new, moderate Islamic government formed in
a country that has been in the grip of civil war since 1991, the latest
multimillion-dollar international plan to stabilize Somalia appears to
be in tatters.
Despite a beefed-up African Union peacekeeping force and a U.N.-backed
reconciliation effort, the moderate president, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, has
failed to win the support of hard-liners such as Aweys or the powerful
insurgent group al-Shabaab, which the State Department has labeled a
terrorist organization.
"The prospect of (Ahmed's) government collapsing is real," said Rashid
Abdi, a Somalia analyst for the International Crisis Group, a policy
research organization.
The U.N. refugee agency said that this week's clashes had sent some
30,000 people fleeing and overwhelmed hospitals with casualties. Some
Mogadishu residents have been trapped in their homes for days, unable to
flee street battles raging around their neighborhoods, the agency said.
The fighting marks a dramatic reversal for Aweys and Ahmed, who were
allies in 2006 when Islamist militias took over Mogadishu. The
septuagenarian Aweys, the henna-bearded father of the country's modern
Islamist movement, plucked Ahmed, then a little-known schoolteacher, to
be the moderate face of the new regime.
When a U.S.-backed invasion by Somalia's archenemy Ethiopia ousted the
Islamists six months later, Aweys fled into exile. Ahmed, to the
hard-liners' disgust, formed an opposition group that reached out to
Western officials.
Since he became president, Ahmed has tried to placate his rivals by
agreeing to institute Islamic law, or Shariah. Aweys' long-awaited
return to Mogadishu last month raised hopes of reconciliation, but in a
speech two days later he accused Ahmed of being a U.S.-Ethiopian client
and called the African Union force - the only thing standing between the
government and the insurgents - "a bacteria" to be flushed out.
"We are not going to accept what the international community is forcing
on us," Aweys said Friday. "We are going to make our own government."
In a country that's deeply suspicious of foreign intervention, analysts
said, the United States and other Western nations underestimated how
easily their support for Ahmed could taint the soft-spoken young
Experts said about 100 government soldiers had defected in recent weeks,
partly because army salaries hadn't been paid and partly because of
fears that Ahmed would be toppled.
"The extremists see (Ahmed) as a sellout," Abdi said. "They call him
'the man of the American Islam.' He's not practicing the harsh brand of
Islam they practice, so they want his blood."
Western officials also appeared to misjudge Aweys, who, despite more
than two years in exile, landed in Mogadishu and seemed swiftly to unite
disparate insurgent groups in a well-organized campaign that has sealed
off the capital's three arterial roads.
Somalia has grabbed world attention in recent months with the surge in
pirate attacks from its lawless shores. In one way, Abdi said, the
pirates could have precipitated the current crisis: After countries
pledged more than $200 million last month for security in Somalia, in
part to fight piracy, the insurgents may have decided to strike before
the government and the African Union got the money.
Western intelligence officials think that the insurgent groups -
particularly al-Shabaab, which has employed al-Qaida-style roadside
bombings and suicide attacks - are backed with money and arms from Arab
countries and from Ethiopia's blood rival, Eritrea.
The top U.N. diplomat for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said Friday
that 280 to 300 foreigners were fighting alongside the insurgents.
Somali government officials say the foreigners come from countries such
as Afghanistan and Chechnya and have trained local fighters in
explosives and tactics.
(Special correspondent Ahmednor Mohamed contributed to this report from
Mogadishu, Somalia.)

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