Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 May 2006
Issue No. 795
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Fighting on

Pro-Western warlords and militant Islamist militias first battle for control of the Somali capital Mogadishu and then hurriedly sign a ceasefire. Gamal Nkrumah takes stock of the latest score

Residents of Mogadishu hide behind a water tank in Somalia's war ravaged capital

Mogadishu is a microcosm. The agonies of Somalia's brutish civil war are magnified there. It was another hellish week for the war-torn Somali seaside capital. Despite the state of anarchy, insecurity and rampant poverty, there are those cosseted insiders in Somalia, mainly in Mogadishu, who have a vested interest in chaos, lawlessness and political mayhem. They see little to gain and much to lose if the Somali state is strengthened.

Militant Islamists, in particular, fear that if they do not grab the chance of tightening their control over the Somali capital -- they now control 80 per cent of Mogadishu -- it may slip away. Outside forces, and in particular the United States, are taking a keener interest in Somali affairs.

The latest round of violence might prove to be a catalyst for a lasting Somali peace settlement, however. The fighting was especially fierce in the neighbourhoods of Sii Sii, or CC, (northern Mogadishu) and Huriwa (central Mogadishu) and resulted in the killing of 150 people -- mainly civilians caught in the crossfire.

Even though Somalia's battered political establishment shows little sign of readiness to embark on peace implementation, at least they are trying. Of course a great deal must still happen before Somalia's leaders can claim to have won a lasting peace settlement.

As a first step in the right direction, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, or Anti-Terror Alliance (ATA), and the Islamists signed a ceasefire agreement Sunday. The political establishment is already in shambles, but at least the protagonists struck a deal. Sheikh Sherif Ahmed signed on behalf of the Islamists and Nur Daqle signed for the ATA.

The Islamists and the ATA must hold their nerve if peace in Somalia is to stand a chance.

The ringleaders of the Islamists are mostly former members of Al-Ittihad Al-Islami -- a group that has sustained colossal losses at the hands of the Ethiopian army in the past decade. They regrouped and now operate under a different guise. Many of the leaders are reputed to have close links with Al-Qaeda.

Part of their appeal is that they are against tribal and clan politics. Among the most notable leaders of the Islamic courts in Mogadishu are Yusuf Al-Ouyoun Al-Baidaa (White Eyes), Hussein Dhaher and Sherif Ahmed. They preach against tribalism and are in favour of instituting an Islamic society that is all-encompassing. They eschew the clan politics that have destroyed the Somali state.

Not coincidentally, they find many followers among the dispossessed and orphans of the Somali civil war who do not have strong tribal or clan affiliations. The Islamists are bitterly opposed to conventional government. The lure of Islamist militancy is strong in war-torn Somalia.

Put simply, they are not seen as fanatical zealots, but rather as anti-tribalists. They do not respect the difference between religion and politics. For them, the religious is by definition political.

Warlords of the ATA accuse the Islamic courts of sheltering Al-Qaeda members. They are said to be working closely with the US Anti-Terror Task Force based in neighbouring Djibouti. Indeed, the Islamic courts counter that the ATA is a pawn of the US.

The wider impact of a Somalia settlement on the Horn of Africa would be enormous. But Somali protagonists must work harder to ensure that peace lasts. They are at loggerheads over the imposition of Islamic government and law. The warlords are secular in the main and they operate within the framework of tribe and clan.

There is a worrying resurgence of disputes over territory, both geographic and political. Islamists reject the Somalia that has become a patchwork of fiefdoms. They want to see an Islamic-governed Somalia -- a country unique in Africa in that it is composed in the main of a single ethnic group, the Somali people, and a single religion -- Islam.

More than religion is at stake, however. The fighting philosophy -- jihad -- of the obdurate Islamists of the courts is widely seen as a technique of political manipulation more than an ideology. Militant Islamists assumed the reins of power in Mogadishu after the assassination of the Somali police chief, General Yusuf Ahmed Sarinle in January 2005. Sarinle was strongly opposed to militant Islamists, and many believe that Islamists were behind his cold-blooded murder. Since his assassination, the task of reining in the militant Islamists has fallen on a group of warlords who, with the approval and tacit connivance of the United States, embarked on a vicious war against the Islamists. The ATA, a pro-Western group of mainly secular warlords, see renewed US interest in Somalia as a golden opportunity to win back influence and lost territory.

The sad truth is that both the ATA and the Islamists are displaying some of the worst aspects of political opportunism. The warlords are brandishing the anti-terrorism card in the hope of winning support from Western powers and the Islamists are waving the religious banner, unleashing anti-Western sentiment. Mogadishu is both a predicament in its own right and a parable for the wider conflict engulfing the country. Both pro-Western warlords and Islamists have opted for the Somali capital as their choice battleground.

Amid allegations of US funding of certain warlords, Somali President Abdullah Yusuf this week urged Washington to work with the Somali government in Baidoa and not with "individuals in Mogadishu".

Among the warlords of the ATA are two cabinet ministers in the transitional government of President Yusuf -- Minister of Security Mohamed Qanyare, who last week declared that his militia is fighting Al-Qaeda in Somalia, and Musa Yalahow.

Apparently angered by the conduct of his warlord ministers, the Somali president issued a stiff warning to the Mogadishu warlords to lay down their arms.

Can outside parties play a positive role for peace? "The Somali people themselves must muster the political will to secure peace and enforce security. The African Union (AU) is cash strapped. The AU has very limited resources which are already stretched in Darfur," Somali Ambassador to Egypt Abdallah Hassan Mahmoud told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"Unfortunately, Arab countries have not been supportive of the Somali peace process. We are grateful for humanitarian relief, aid and assistance from a number of Arab countries, but on the whole the Arab world has remained aloof from the Somali crisis -- even somewhat indifferent," Ambassador Mahmoud noted.

The irony is that the fracas in Mogadishu comes at a time when the US has resumed its engagement with Somali parties, severed since Mohamed Farah Aidid masterminded in 1993 America's disastrous military intervention.

As far as the Somali leadership temporarily headquartered in Baidoa -- 250 kilometres northwest of Mogadishu -- is concerned, this is the time to take the bull by the horns and clamp down hard on the militants Islamists -- especially those with Al-Qaeda connections.

The question is: would Washington rather work with a few hand-picked warlords or with the Somali government in Baidoa to contain the Islamist threat?

The truce might hold for the time being, but the Islamists are not going to give up their Mogadishu stronghold without an even greater fight.

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