Question marks surround the future of war-torn Somalia, which recently saw the withdrawal of an Islamic militia movement that effectively ruled the country for about six months. The country's internationally backed transitional government is now working in Mogadishu to establish its power, but it took over only with the help of troops from neighboring Ethiopia.
In addition to the battle between the Islamic militia and forces of the transitional government, the United States recently made at least one airstrike against terrorists American officials believe are hiding out in the southern part of the country.
Volatile Somalia is once again near the top of the international agenda. Last month, Ethiopian troops helped drive out the fundamentalist movement known as the Islamic Courts Union. The Islamists had imposed harsh sharia law, but won public support by bringing relative order to chaotic Mogadishu. Now, as popular loyalties are thrown into disarray, the presence of Ethiopian troops is proving to be one of the trickiest aspects of the new order.
William Zartman of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies says Somali dislike of Ethiopians runs deep. "One of my favorite Somali sayings is if you see a snake and an Ethiopian, kill the Ethiopian first because the snake might not be poisonous," says Zartman.
He says the presence of Ethiopian troops in Somalia sparks public opposition because of what he describes as Somalia's complex social structure, which is organized around clans and sub-clans. "The segmentary system says, 'I against my brother, but my brother and I against my cousin, and my cousin and I against the outside world.'" In this case, Zartman says, Ethiopia is the outside force.
Warlords and the Somali Government
George Washington University's David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, says he believes Somalis themselves have to be responsible for working through the current crisis in their country. The Somali government is, in his words, "working very, very hard" to try to make alliances with former warlords. "This is the biggest challenge they have. Otherwise, you may have a return of warlord politics to Mogadishu. That is not good if that happens," says Shinn.
Already, analysts say, the transitional government is showing some degree of inflexibility. In a recent statement, interim Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf said his government would neither forgive nor negotiate with the leadership of the Islamic Courts Union.
Shinn said he believes it would be in the federal government's interest to work out some sort of agreement with the moderates in the Islamic militia, especially since many of them are still around. "Most of them did not leave Mogadishu. They were not militia, they were not fighters. They were simply people who believed in sharia and the creation of an Islamic state in Somalia, and they didn't leave," says Shinn.
The situation in Somalia intensified when, just days ago, the United States launched at least one airstrike on southern Somali targets that Pentagon officials say were aimed at hitting "principal al-Qaida leadership" figures in the area.
At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow said the U.S. military action backs up Washington's campaign to stamp out terrorism around the world. "We have made it clear that this is a global war on terror, and this is a reiteration of the fact. People who think that they are going to establish safe havens for al-Qaida any place need to realize that we are going to fight them," said Snow.
Somalis reacted with anger to the airstrike, the first known American military action in Somalia since a humanitarian mission ended in disaster in 1994.
Nii Akuetteh, Executive Director of the non-governmental advocacy group Africa Action, says his organization is troubled by what it believes is the U.S. role in the latest Somali crisis. "It seems that the policy is the global war on terrorism, over and above everything else. I have long felt that that is, if you might excuse me, a mistake," says Akuetteh.
He accuses Washington of using Africa as a battleground in its global war against terrorists, which he compared to how the United States and the Soviet Union struggled against each other in Africa during the Cold War. "It [i.e., the Cold War] caused a lot of problems on my continent. The Congo is still reeling from things that were done in the name of the Cold War, and when the Cold War is over, the big powers simply leave and go away," says Akuetteh.
Many Somalis have been angered by their perception that the United States is, from behind the scenes, guiding events in Somalia.
But Gayle Smith, at the non-governmental organization, Center for American Progress, says she believes Ethiopia would have gone ahead with its efforts to help overthrow the Islamic Courts Union, with or without support from the United States. "I suspect Ethiopia would have gone ahead. I think they were operating on the basis of what they perceived as their national interests. I don't think they saw this as, 'We need to do this for the United States.' Ethiopia and Somalia have fought before," says Smith.
Another issue for Ethiopia is Eritrea, a country with which it fought a bitter border war. Eritrea is among the countries accused of having provided funding and troops for the defeated Somali Islamists.
Meanwhile, Smith says it is wrong for people to think that Somalia's future is or should be dominated by what Washington wants. She added that the U.S. ability to control the situation is limited. "The United States can't fix this. The United States has a role to play, and if we have a smart strategy, a long-term vision and a willingness to collaborate and cooperate with others, I think we can contribute positively, I don't want to overstate that," says Smith.
Peace for Somalia is the goal for many, including Africa Action's Nii Akuetteh. "The quicker the war ends, the quicker the foreign army goes back, the quicker you get a decent peacekeeping force and you bring together the various parties to talk and build their own democracy, the better," says Akuetteh.
Ethiopia has said it will pull its troops out of Somalia within the next few weeks. International officials are scrambling to assemble some sort of peacekeeping force to take over after they leave.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.