The United States said Wednesday it is backing an East African peacekeeping force for Somalia to help stabilize the country, rather than fuel ongoing warfare. A U.S.-backed draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would clear the way for the force is expected to come up for action within the next few days. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The Bush administration is defending its support for the East African force, amid charges its arrival would only worsen on-going Somali violence and perhaps lead to regional warfare.
A U.S.-sponsored draft Security Council resolution, backed by the other permanent council member countries including Russia and China, would ease the international arms embargo against Somalia in place since 1992 to allow deployment of a regional force that would shore up the country's beleaguered transitional government.
Based in the western Somali town of Baidoa, the Transitional Federal Institutions or TFI has international support.
But it is under military siege by the country's powerful Islamic movement, the Council of Islamic Courts, which controls the capital Mogadishu and says it aims to seize the entire country and perhaps even ethnic-Somali areas of neighboring states.
The proposed African force, to be set up by the East African regional intergovernmental grouping IGAD, would seek to stabilize the situation by providing force training and protection for the interim government, though not undertaking offensive action against the Islamic Courts.
At a briefing for reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said the United States is supporting only a narrow change in the arms embargo to allow deployment of the IGAD troops, but not fuel a wider conflict.
She said flatly that the forces of the transitional government need to be trained and reinforced so that it can be what she termed a credible negotiating partner with the Islamic Courts, which she said currently sees no reason to sit down and negotiate a settlement.
"We feel that this force is also important to achieve our broader Somalia objective, which includes most importantly creating a space for the dialogue to occur between the Transitional Federal government and the Union of Islamic courts. And in particular it's our view that as long as the Union of Islamic Courts continues to believe that it can have a military victory, there will not be an engagement and serious dialogue. So you have to have some parity between two sides of the dialogue," she said.
Frazer said the envisaged 8,000-member force would be made up of troops from the seven-country IGAD grouping and not Somalia's neighbors, including Ethiopia which is reported to have sent in troops to support the transitional government, and rival Eritrea which is helping the Islamists.
She said that contrary to claims that the IGAD force would broaden the conflict into a regional war, its deployment would actually create conditions for Ethiopia and Eritrea to disengage, while deterring further aggression against the TFI.
At this point, only Uganda among IGAD members has said it is ready to commit troops to the force, whose deployment is vehemently opposed by the by the Islamic Courts.
The Islamic Courts movement routed a group of U.S.-backed Somali warlords early this year and seized Mogadishu in June, later capturing most of southern and central Somalia and imposing strict religious law.
In her talk with reporters, Assistant Secretary Frazer said al-Qaida terrorists were operating with what she termed great comfort in areas controlled by the Islamic Courts and providing training and assistance to a group of radicals loyal to the Somali movement.
She said the United States has been in contact with all elements in Somalia including the Islamic Courts, which has publicly disavowed terrorism, to try to prevent the country from becoming an al-Qaida safe-haven.
Frazer said of particular concern to U.S. officials are three al-Qaida militants wanted in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and a coastal hotel in Kenya in 2002.