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Somalia's Changing Political Landscape

A U.S.-hosted international meeting convened in New York Thursday to discuss the situation in Somalia after Islamic militias took control of the capital and much of the southern part of the country in recent weeks. These developments come on the heels of allegations that the United States has provided Somali warlords with financial backing.

Thursday's meeting, the first by the newly-formed "Somalia Contact Group," attempted to coordinate international efforts to support the country's transitional government in the wake of recent violence.

In the past four months, Somalia's Islamic Courts Union and the Warlords Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism have battled for control of the capital, Mogadishu. Now, the Islamic militias control Mogadishu and much of the south. Somali leaders have accused the United States of backing the Warlords Alliance, a charge that official Washington has neither acknowledged nor denied. But privately, some American officials say the warlords have received support from the United States.

Nevertheless, Ted Dagne, an Africa expert with the Congressional Research Service in Washington, cautions against putting too much stock in these reports. "There is no official acknowledgement that the U.S. government has provided financing to the warlords,” says Dagne. “And even if that were accurate, is that the only element that created this situation in Somalia where warlords and factions fight over turf and political issues? No. You have other interested parties in this - - the Somalis themselves. Somalis have enough weapons to fight for another 20 years without outside funding or support. You have neighboring countries who provide assistance to some of the warlords."

Somalia has been without an effective government since warlords overthrew former dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991. In 2004, international mediation produced a transitional government based in the southern city of Baidoa. The government has been unable to move its operations to the capital because of continuing violence and instability. Some experts say rival warlords in the cabinet, some of whom enjoy Ethiopian support, have shown no interest in restoring state authority.

Ethiopia and Kenya, in particular, worry about a possible extremist Islamic presence in Mogadishu. And since the Islamic Courts militia took control of Mogadishu last week, the United States has voiced similar concerns that Somalia could become a haven for extremists and foreign terrorists.

A Setback for U.S. Policy in Somalia

Political scientist Ken Menkhaus of North Carolina's Davidson College calls the Islamic victory a setback for U.S. foreign policy. "This is not an outcome that anyone wanted. Having said that, if an administration emerged in Mogadishu that involves moderate Islamists that everyone can live with and there is a government and national coalition, this could turn out to be a positive turn of events. That's a best-case scenario," says Menkhaus.

Many observers consider the "Contact Group" meeting in New York an acknowledgement of an inadequate U.S. policy toward Somalia, but also a possible opening for dialogue with moderate Islamic leaders in Mogadishu. While applauding the meeting as a good first step, George Washington University's David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, says the United States has not had a coherent policy toward Somalia since American troops left the war-ridden country in 1994.

"This is what it [i.e., the United States] needs today. It needs to approach Somalia from a macro point of view, rather than the narrower, counter-terrorism point of view, albe t counterterrorism is an important issue in Somalia. There are deep concerns about some of the al-Qaida people who have used Mogadishu or have gone through Mogadishu in making attacks against targets in Kenya, particularly," says Shinn.

Few observers contest that terrorist elements have taken refuge in Somalia. Washington is particularly interested in three al-Qaida leaders linked to the 1980 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, who are thought to be in Somalia. But most analysts caution against equating all Islamic Somali forces with terrorism or extremism.

The Islamic Courts Union: A Mixed Bag

Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College says Somalia, historically, has been a moderate Muslim nation with little inclination toward implementing strict Islamic law. Moreover, he points out that the Islamic Courts Union is a mix of moderates and extremists who appear to be divided among themselves over the issue.

"The Islamic coalition itself is very fragmented. It includes a wide array of very, very different ideologies ranging from relatively moderate [elements] to hardliners who have been associated with jihadist violence and who, the U.S. Government claims, are housing a small number of foreign al-Qaida suspects in Mogadishu," says Menkhaus.

Some observers worry about what these divisions may produce, if hardliners take over the leadership of the Islamic Courts Union in Mogadishu. Such a shift would be significant for the region, says George Washington University's David Shinn.

"It changes the way that people are looking at Somalia today, and [it] certainly has an impact on the immediate neighbors of Somalia, particularly Ethiopia, also Kenya, to a considerable extent. Both countries are probably concerned about the implications of greater Islamic-focused power in the Mogadishu area. But they too are probably wondering whether it is necessarily a negative development, or whether there might even be some positive things to come out of it if, for example, the Islamists are able to maintain better control of Mogadishu, which has been unruly for the last 15 years," says Shinn.

But many Somalia watchers point out that things seldom stay the same for very long in that part of the world. And for some, this could mean that the Islamic leadership and the transitional government may eventually come to blows. That's why most analysts say it is important that the contact group's efforts in New York yield a long-term strategy to help strengthen Somalia's transitional government and civic institutions.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.