The leader of the Somalia's powerful Islamist movement, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, says his country is now in a state of war with neighboring Ethiopia, fueling international concerns that it may be too late to avert a potentially catastrophic war in the Horn of Africa. From our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi, VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu looks at Ethiopia's pivotal role in the conflict.
When Sheikh Aweys declared on Thursday that all Somalis should join in what he called "a struggle against Ethiopia," he said he viewed Somalia's giant neighbor as the single biggest obstacle to uniting Somalia under an Islamic courts system, which he says would bring peace and stability to the long-suffering country.
The director of the Nelson Institute at James Madison University in the United States, J. Peter Pham, says in reality, what Aweys wants to do is to unite Somalia under a banner of Islamic fundamentalism and Ethiopia's military intervention in Somalia is giving Sheikh Aweys the ideal excuse to achieve his goal.
"In many respects, Ethiopia is the worst possible intervener in the Somali situation because of the history between the two peoples," he said. "A lot of the support that is engendered for the Islamist movement in Somalia right now is nationalistic support in face of what is perceived to be an Ethiopian invasion."
The history of Somalia and Ethiopia is marred by bad blood dating back to 1964, when Somalia first fought against Ethiopia to gain independence from Italy and redefine borders involving both countries.
Since then, they have fought two major wars and sponsored rebel groups to destabilize each other. After Somalia descended into political anarchy in 1991, Ethiopia sent its forces across the border a number of times, in support of factional leaders friendly to Addis Ababa.
Experts say Ethiopia has long sought a regime in Somalia that would be an ally rather than an enemy. Addis Ababa is said to have played a major role in the appointment of long-time Ethiopian ally Abdullahi Yusuf as the leader of Somalia's two-year old interim government, temporarily headquartered in the town of Baidoa.
But in June, the Islamists, led by Sheikh Aweys, defeated factional leaders in Mogadishu, who were members of the interim government. The Islamists then began rapidly consolidating their power through military force throughout southern Somalia.
A member of parliament in the interim government, Awad Ahmed Ashareh, says Ethiopia, which denies deploying as many as 20,000 combat troops in Somalia, felt it had no choice but to send reinforcements to protect Baidoa.
He said, "Ethiopia feels her opponents are now in Mogadishu and Ethiopia sees as legitimate to pursue its enemy anywhere."
Ethiopia and interim President Yusuf has pursued Sheikh Aweys before, when in the early 1990s, the Islamist leader led a militant, anti-Ethiopian group called al-Itihaad al-Islamiya in the semiautonomous Somali region of Puntland.
Al-Itihaad was defeated and Aweys was forced to retreat to his home region in central Somalia. But Professor Pham says this time, defeating the radical cleric and his supporters could be far more difficult.
He said, "These are people, who in the 1990s, carried out terrorist attacks within Ethiopia, including the attempted assassination of a minister in Addis Ababa."
"So, there is a clear record of terrorism vis-à-vis Ethiopia and for what they lack in tactical experience, some of the foreign elements now coming into Somalia will bring that with them. So, it is a very clear danger that this may spiral into an insurgency-slash-terrorist campaigns that will engulf the region," he added.
Ethiopia and the United States say the Islamist movement is now under the control of an East Africa al-Qaida cell and believe at least three terrorists behind the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania are in Somalia.
But another U.S.-based analyst, Professor Terrance Lyons at George Mason University, says Ethiopia is at the heart of another problem creating instability in Somalia, which the United States and the West must work to resolve quickly.
He said, "To imagine that the very dangerous situation in Somalia is primarily about al-Qaida is to misunderstand the predominantly local dynamics that drive the conflict."
"The thing that makes Somalia particularly explosive is the links between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict that is being played out by proxy in Somalia," he continued.
Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bitter two-year border war that ended in 2000, but the peace process has not led to easing of tensions between the two rivals.
In Somalia, experts and diplomats say Eritrea is trying to frustrate Ethiopia backing the Islamists with weapons and as many as 2,000 Eritrean troops.
Like Addis Ababa, Asmara denies it has any combat troops in Somalia. But many experts say they believe it may be just a matter of time before the two sides drag in the rest of the region into a long and bloody conflict.