The United States is organizing a meeting in New York Thursday of concerned countries and international organizations on the situation in Somalia. The State Department says the aim of the new "contact group" on Somalia is to shore up support for the East African country's struggling transitional government.
The convening of the contact group reflects deepening and international concern about Somalia, where the country's civil conflict has taken a new turn with the capture of the capital Mogadishu and other key areas by a hard-line Muslim militia, the Islamic Courts Union.
The Islamic Courts Union has routed a coalition of warlords it says has gotten material and financial support from the United States.
But it has nonetheless contacted the U.S. and other governments in recent days to say that it has no desire to be considered an enemy or to set up Taleban-style dictatorial rule in the country.
The Bush administration has been non-committal about whether it has funneled money to the warlord alliance, but has lent political support to the U.N.-backed transitional government based in the southwestern town of Baidoa.
In a written statement on the eve of the contact group meeting, the State Department reaffirmed backing for the Baidoa administration. But it also said the United States is ready to work with all Somali parties for a peaceful solution to the civil conflict and the reestablishment of effective governance.
It said the United States is committed to work with local and international partners to help address common concerns regarding terrorism, alleviate the growing humanitarian emergency in Somalia, and help its people regain political and economic stability.
The country has been without a functioning central government since 1991.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that figures associated with the Islamic Courts Union have given shelter to al-Qaida members including some involved in the coordinated 1998 truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
However in an open letter to the United States and other governments last week, the leader of the Islamic Courts Union, Sharif Ahmed, flatly denied helping terrorists.
Briefing reporters Tuesday, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States was still considering its reply, and did not rule out working with the group:
"We do have a letter from them asking to open a channel of dialogue. We have not yet responded to that letter. We want to have a better understanding of this group. Who is part of this group. Our initial assessment is that it is not a homogenous group, meaning that you don't have a universal set of views with respect to what Somalia should look like in the future. So we want to get a better idea about that, certainly, as one factor before we provide any response to the letter or have any more definitive judgment about this group," he said.
In Congressional testimony Tuesday, the State Department's counter-terrorism coordinator Henry Crumpton said the Bush administration's main priority in Somalia is the ouster of what he termed a "resilient" al-Qaida cell thought to be trying to establish a safe-haven there.
Crumpton said the United States expected the Islamic Courts Union to work with the transitional government, and cooperate with the United States for the handover of al-Qaida and foreign fighters who have found refuge in Mogadishu.
Officials here say the European Union, Britain, Sweden, Norway, Italy and Tanzania have agreed to attend the first meeting of the contact group, though it could be expanded later.
The United Nations and the African Union have been asked to take part as observers. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer will head the U.S. team at the meeting, to be held behind closed doors at the Norwegian U.N. mission in New York.