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Somalia's New Security Threat: Improvised Explosive Devices

Since the fall of Somalia's last functioning government in 1991, Somalis have become used to the warring factions fighting each other with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. But, the use of homemade bombs the U.S. military calls "improvised explosive devices" is steadily increasing in Somalia, raising fears that a new, far more deadly phase of insecurity has begun in the lawless Horn of African country.

Residents living near the area of Mogadishu called Kilometer Four say they will never forget what happened on the night of December 22.

Shortly after nightfall, several people say they saw a group of men gathering in a small dirt field, just off the main road. One of the witnesses, 18-year-old Hassan Mohammed says he thought the men were acting suspiciously. But he could not see much in the dark, so he went inside his house.

A few minutes later, Mohammed says an ear-splitting explosion shattered windows and sent people fleeing into the streets in panic.

He says he immediately ran over to the dirt field, where the suspicious-looking men had been, and saw pools of what appeared to be blood. Mohammed says he went back to the site the next morning and discovered human body parts scattered all over the field.

At least five men are believed to have been killed in the blast. Since there are no police in Mogadishu, the incident was never investigated. But based on the size of the explosion, most people here say they believe that the men were handling a large improvised explosive device, commonly known as an IED, which detonated prematurely.

Most IEDs are made of artillery or mortar shells, fitted with a remote detonator. Until a year ago, Somalis had only heard about these crude-but-lethal bombs as a weapon used against U.S. military convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But last February 17, an IED hidden on an abandoned motorcycle exploded on a road in Mogadishu, killing two Somalis but missing its intended target - a convoy of U.N. delegates who had arrived in support of international efforts to move Somalia's transitional federal government from exile in Nairobi to Mogadishu.

The incident in February marked the first of several deadly bombings involving IEDs in Somalia last year, and no one has claimed responsibility for any of them.

A local radio journalist, Mohammed Amiin Sheikh Adow, says without the ability to gather and analyze evidence, Somalis can only speculate as to who may be behind the bombings.

"Some people relate it to Islamic extremists," he said. "They say the clerics are behind this. Some others say it is the people who oppose the Somali central government. But most feel that it may be Islamic extremism behind it."

Hard-line Muslim clerics in Mogadishu have made no secret of their opposition to Somalia's transitional government, formed last October in neighboring Kenya.

The Western-style, parliamentary government is composed of factional leaders and politicians, who are secular Muslims and do not share the clerics' vision of establishing an ultraconservative Islamic government in Somalia. The clerics have repeatedly said that they are determined to set up a government, which adheres strictly to teachings in the Koran.

At least one of the bombings last year specifically targeted the transitional Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi.

Last November, a huge explosion tore through the neighborhood near Ramadan hotel in Mogadishu, where Prime Minister Gedi was staying while visiting the city. Mr. Gedi was not hurt, but six people were killed in the blast.

While it is possible that Muslim extremists tried to assassinate the prime minister in a bid to derail the government, some Somalis say the bombing could have well have been staged by one of Mr. Gedi's political rivals.

At the moment, the transitional government is split between supporters of Mr. Gedi, who is based in the city of Jowhar north of Mogadishu, and supporters of the Speaker of Parliament Sharif Hassan Sheikh Adan, who is based in the capital.

Journalist Mohammed Amiin Sheikh Adow says he doubts anyone will ever know the truth behind the attacks.

"Really, it is too dangerous. It is too dangerous," he said. "Some people may see you a traitor if you try to know more about this. You can get killed."

What is certain to most Somalis is that with little sign that the country will get a functioning government any time soon, the battle to fill the political vacuum will only escalate.

They fear that IEDs have now become another weapon to be used in the fight, leaving frightened Mogadishu residents like Fatima Ali Osman to wonder what the future holds for ordinary civilians.

Osman says every Somali has been the victim of violence for the past 15 years and knows unspeakable suffering firsthand. But she says she believes the bombings are the start of something much worse than what anyone has seen up to now.

She says, "Only God can save us now from this madness."