The U.S. State Department's top official on Africa went to Capitol Hill Tuesday to defend U.S. policy in Somalia. In December, Somali forces, backed by Ethiopian troops, drove out the Islamist government that had gained control of much of the country last year. In the weeks since then, U.S. has offered support to the transitional government that is now in control in Mogadishu. VOA's Marissa Melton reports from Washington.
State Department Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer came under tough questioning Tuesday by senators who were seeking a clearer outline of administration policy in Somalia.
Senator Russ Feingold began by asking Frazer why the Bush administration had missed a congressional deadline to submit a plan for Somali stabilization.
"What we're trying to do is develop, as you have asked and the Congress has asked, a comprehensive strategy," she said. "Let me just state that part of building a comprehensive strategy is actually responding to the events on the ground and actually implementing the strategies we have in place."
Senator Feingold suggested establishing a U.S. special envoy to Somalia to make clear that the United States has an interest in helping Somalia stabilize, and to help manage policy on the ground.
Frazer said that suggestion did not make sense to her.
"The reason why I'm hesitating and you're hearing me hesitate is I don't understand why we would want to take or suggest that the Secretary of State who is actively engaged and involved on a daily basis on Somalia, and is a senior diplomat for our government, why we would suggest that she not stay in that lead role," said Jendayi Frazer.
Other experts testifying at the hearing of the African Affairs subcommittee said Somalia is in a fragile state. Ethiopian forces have begun to withdraw from the country, and the African Union is preparing to send in a peacekeeping force as the transitional government in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, struggles to keep control. It is Somalia's first centralized government in more than a decade.
Political scientist Ken Menkhaus, an expert on Africa, cautioned that Somalia will be temporarily more vulnerable as Ethiopian troops depart and African Union troops take their place.
"The situation in Mogadishu is tense, it's fragile, it's deteriorating, Ethiopia is partially withdrawing its troops," said Ken Menkhaus. "The good news with that is that by withdrawing their forces they're eliminating the main target for an insurgency to attack, the bad news is that runs the risk of leaving a vacuum."
Meanwhile in Somalia, government officials began a series of talks this week with religious and traditional leaders, in an attempt to prepare the way for a larger reconciliation conference. And an African Union delegation is in Mogadishu to evaluate the security situation before the peacekeeping troops are deployed.