From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Fri Nov 21 2008 - 05:55:44 EST
SCENARIOS-Is Somalia on the verge of an Islamist takeover?
Fri 21 Nov 2008, 9:16 GMT
By Andrew Cawthorne
NAIROBI, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Rampant piracy offshore and an advance by Islamist rebels on Mogadishu have put Somalia's long-running civil conflict in the global spotlight.
Here are some possible scenarios for the country.
* After a two-year insurgency, Islamist fighters are within nine miles (six km) of the capital and President Abdullahi Yusuf admits his Western-backed government is on the verge of collapse. The Islamists or aligned groups now control most of the south, except Mogadishu and the seat of parliament, Baidoa.
* The Islamists' momentum in recent months has led to some predictions of an imminent assault on the capital, where they launch regular guerrilla-style attacks on the government and its Ethiopian military allies.
* But the rebels are split. The most militant wing, al Shabaab, which is on Washington's terrorist list, is urging jihad, or holy war. Moderate elements in another faction, the Islamic Courts Union, are leaning towards talks. The umbrella opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) is divided into a pro-peace group known as ARS-Djibouti and a hardline wing ARS-Eritrea.
* Some analysts say the Islamists may be quietly satisfied with the current, Iraq-style situation of daily attacks in Mogadishu, drawing in African peacekeepers and keeping Somali-Ethiopian troops bogged down. The presence of several thousand Ethiopian troops -- who beat them militarily at the end of 2006 -- is a major deterrent to an assault on the city.
* Should the Islamists take the capital, hardline leaders say they will impose sharia law across the south. Washington fears that would make it a haven for al Qaeda-linked extremists, and neighbouring Ethiopia fears a push on its ethnically Somali regions. But some regional diplomats say the world should have nothing to fear from an Islamist-led Somalia, provided -- crucially -- al Shabaab and other militants are marginalised. The northern states of Somaliland and Puntland run their own affairs, with the former having declared itself independent.
* Islamist leaders have publicly vowed to stamp out piracy if they take over and cite their action against gangs when they ruled the south for half of 2006. But analysts say some factions, including Shabaab, are increasingly linked to piracy, using the gangs to bring arms from abroad and sharing spoils.
* After 14 attempts to re-establish effective central government in Somalia since warlords toppled a dictator in 1991, another one came along this year. The U.N. special envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, has been leading talks in Djibouti between the government and moderate Islamists.
* Both sides have signed a ceasefire in principle and an agreement to form a power-sharing government. But with hardline Islamists stepping up attacks every time the peace process moves a notch forward, it has had no impact in stemming violence on the ground. Further, Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein says Yusuf himself is opposed to the peace process. "The president is an obstacle, no doubt," he told Reuters this week, underlining rifts that are frustrating the government's foreign backers.
* East African nations and the wider international community are backing power-sharing as the best way to avoid the collapse of Yusuf's government while adapting to the reality of Islamist power on the ground.
* A regional summit in Nairobi at the end of October gave the Somali government a 15-day deadline for a cabinet reshuffle to bring in some moderate opponents. The deadline has expired.
* Any talk of foreign intervention in Somalia is tinged with memories of disastrous U.N. and U.S. interventions in the early 1990s, perhaps most vividly illustrated by the "Black Hawk Down" battle in 1993 when 18 American troops were killed.
* The African Union (AU) has a 3,000-strong peacekeeping force of Ugandans and Burundians, but they have been unable to do much more than guard a few key installations like the presidential palace and airport. Both of those have been hit by insurgents, however, and AU troops themselves are targets too.
* The AU is struggling to increase the force to an intended 8,000, though Nigeria and others are talking of soon sending reinforcements. The pan-African body's preferred option, however, is to hand over to the United Nations.
* The U.N. Security Council appears to have no political appetite for another major intervention in Africa -- at a time when it is facing criticism over failing to keep the peace in Congo and Darfur -- but has begun contingency planning in case.
* By contrast, foreign nations have swung into quick action to try to contain piracy which has reached unprecedented levels this year in the nearby Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean waters.
* The NATO alliance and the European Union (EU) have sent ships, while the United States, France, Russia, India and others have all stepped up patrols in the area. As if mocking their efforts, pirates took a Saudi supertanker off Kenya last weekend in their biggest and geographically furthest strike yet.
* Ethiopia has been quietly withdrawing soldiers it sent in 2006 to back the government. But it still has several thousand there and is viewed as unlikely to pull them all out for fear of an al Shabaab assault on Mogadishu.
CHAOS AS NORMAL?
* In the absence of any major shift in Somali politics, the current quagmire would simply continue.
* Fighting has killed 10,000 civilians since early 2007 and more would undoubtedly be caught up in daily clashes. More than 1 million are internal refugees, and that number would grow.
* Foreign fighters may continue to be attracted to "Africa's Iraq" which militants present as a war against infidel invaders.
© Reuters 2008. All Rights Reserved.
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