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Somalis Worry About Stability After Islamists Forced Out

Many residents of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, say they fear deploying foreign peacekeepers to re-establish security there after the fall of the country's Islamist movement may cause more instability, not less. From Mogadishu, VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has this report.

On the outskirts of Mogadishu's main market, small business owner Khalif Sheik Mohamed sits in his small, dimly-lit office, deeply worried about the future of his two year-old company.

The company makes signs and billboards for other small businesses in the city. He says demand for his products have plummeted, since the Islamists abandoned the capital late last month and left the city to looters and freelance gunmen, eager to take advantage of the security vacuum.

"My concern is security, because the business is depending on security. To tell you the truth, security is worse than ever before," he confided.

Like many moderate Muslims in this city of more than two million, Mohamed was relieved when the Islamic fundamentalist movement collapsed late last month after being routed by Ethiopia's military and troops loyal to the country's U.N.-recognized secular interim government.

During the Islamists' six-month rule, many Somalis here chafed against the Islamists' attempt to impose a strict religious rule and strongly disapproved of the Islamist leadership's alleged ties to terrorist groups.

Nevertheless, Somalis say the Islamists never fully lost popular support because they disbanded factional militias, set up a functioning court system, and made the streets safe for ordinary people for the first time since the fall of Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

Mustafa Sheik is a Somali-American who has been living and working in Mogadishu for the past year. He says while many people have little desire to see the Islamist leaders back in power, they are worried that interim government leaders - who are themselves mired in factional divisions - will not be able to keep Mogadishu and the rest of the country from sliding back into clan violence and lawlessness.

"Everyone is skeptical right now. They are just waiting and seeing," he said. "If this government does not prove to be competent, I think this country will be in serious trouble."

To stabilize Somalia, the United States has called for the rapid deployment of an 8,000 member African peacekeeping mission, which has been endorsed by the U.N. Security Council.

The United States has offered millions of dollars in financial help and has asked several countries, including Uganda and Nigeria, to contribute troops.

Somalia's interim government, which is currently relying on tens of thousands of Ethiopian troops in Somalia to help provide security, says it will continue training and expanding its military and police while a peacekeeping force is established.

Bordering countries like Ethiopia are not eligible to participate in the peacekeeping mission and Addis Ababa would have to withdraw its troops.

Ethiopia intervened militarily in Somalia because it felt threatened by the emergence of an Islamic fundamentalist state on its doorstep. But Somalis like Khalif Sheik Mohammed question whether troops from other nations would risk themselves in a country in which they have little or no stake.

"The peacekeepers, what they are thinking [is] this is not their country," he said. "They are just trying to get back safely. Somebody thinking his security first cannot handle security."

Mustafa Sheik says he agrees with Mohamed. In a city as volatile as Mogadishu, he worries that peacekeepers may unintentionally create a bigger security problem than the one they are trying to solve.

"Once you have foreign troops in a country, all it takes is one soldier to make a mistake. Look at Iraq. Look at Afghanistan," he noted.

Others see a possible of repeat of the events that led to the disastrous U.S.-led humanitarian and peacekeeping mission in Somalia in the early 1990s.

In 1993, 28,000 U.N. troops were deployed in Mogadishu to disarm various factions, restore law and order, and to help set up a representative government.

But in June of that year, 24 Pakistani troops were murdered by Somali militiamen, prompting the United States to take military action against a prominent factional leader. Mounting civilian casualties enraged ordinary Somalis and the conflict escalated.

Critics of the current peacekeeping proposal note that remnants of the Islamist movement or their supporters may similarly try to sabotage the peacekeeping mission and keep the country destabilized.

Critics say the lesson learned in 1993 and from countless other missions since then is that in order to have peacekeeping, there first needs to be peace.

In Somalia, that is proving to be elusive once again.