The State Department's chief African affairs official said Friday dialogue between Somalia's transitional government and the Islamic faction now controlling Mogadishu is of critical importance to the country's future. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer represented the United States Thursday at the initial meeting of a new international "contact group" on Somalia.
The Islamic Courts Union militia, which has taken over Mogadishu and other key parts of Somalia, has been stressing moderation, and making overtures for dialogue with the United States and other governments in recent days.
But Assistant Secretary Frazer, who is the point person for U.S. policy on Somalia, says it is more important for the Islamic group to reach out to the transitional administration in Baidoa, and talk with it about establishing stable governance in the war-torn country.
At a news briefing on Thursday's New York meeting of the new contact group, Frazer said the Islamic Courts Union needs to recognize that United Nations-backed transitional administration is the only real vehicle through which Somalia can end its 15 years of warfare and political chaos. "What we, as an international Somali contact group, said is it's not important, their dialogue with us. What's important is their dialogue with the Transitional Federal Institutions. It's their dialogue with the clan leaders, it's their dialogue with civil society that matters. The T.F.I. needs to be the mechanism for organizing and coordinating an inclusive dialogue with all elements of the Somali polity," he said.
The contact group, which included several European governments and Tanzania as well as the United States, reaffirmed support for the transitional government, which has been operating on Somali territory for two years but unable to expand its control beyond Baidoa.
The United States has said it is reserving judgment about overtures from the Islamic Courts Union, which has said it is not interested in imposing Taleban-style dictatorial rule or supporting terrorism.
U.S. officials say at least three al-Qaida figures involved in the 1998 truck bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam are in Mogadishu, which has been controlled by the Courts Union since earlier this month.
Frazer said it is unclear whether the Islamic militia or elements within it are linked to, or giving shelter to the al-Qaida operatives. But she said the Courts Union must be aware that the status of the terrorists is what she termed a "core interest" of the United States. "What we're trying to do is gain greater information, fidelity, and also make it very clear to all entities in Somalia, whether it's clan elders, whether it's Islamic Court militias, whether it's warlords, whether it's business people -- however you want to characterize them -- that these foreign terrorists are going to continue to be a critical interest of the United States. They're indicted. They have to be turned over. It's not in the Somali peoples' interest to harbor foreign terrorists," he said.
The Somalia contact group, which included the United Nations and African Union as observers, set no date for its second meeting. Diplomats say its next step is to try to generate financial backing for the transitional government, and for relief efforts for the Somali people. UN officails say there are some 250,000 displaced people in Somalia and that it is one of the worst human crises in the world today.