Regional war looms despite efforts of Somali Islamic leaders

It has been generally accepted for some time now that the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) has established firm control over most areas of Somalia –” including Mogadishu, the capital, and other leading ports and towns. By contrast the interim government has no presence outside the small and ruined town of Baidoa, 150 miles west of Mogadishu, though it enjoys the support of the UN, the West and neighbouring countries. Any lingering doubt that the ICU is the real power in the land –” which the ‘international community’ must, therefore, recognise as such –” has now been removed by the ICU’s recent dramatic capture of Kismayo, the only significant port outside its control. Equally, any doubts that the ICU will apply Islamic law and establish an Islamic government if, and when, it assumes power have been removed by its unequivocal public statement and the implementation of shari’ah law by its own courts. Strong statements by its leaders that it will not brook any deployment of African or other foreign forces in Somalia, as planned, have also demonstrated how radical the ICU plans to be. Not surprisingly, this has dealt a blow to the arrangement of a peace deal and has raised the prospect of a regional war breaking out.

Neighbouring Ethiopian and Kenya — which have territorial disputes with Somalia and fear the establishment of an Islamic state (or even movement) there –” have reacted strongly to the situation, with Ethiopia sending additional forces in. Addis Ababa, which is sworn to the protection of the interim government in Baidoa, already maintains military forces near the town. According to a report by the Associated Press (AP) on September 25, the Ethiopian troops moved in the same day to any area only 60 kilometres from Baidoa with the specific purpose of protecting the interim government against the ICU troops occupying Kismayo only a day earlier. The AP report, quoting witnesses in the region, put the number of new troops at 300. The report also quotes an ICU spokesman as saying that the purpose of the new troops is to block "their way" from Mogadishu to Kismayo.

The ICU believes that the African force the East African countries and the UN are planning to send to Somalia to protect the interim government will take Kismayo, which is the nearest big port to Kenya. The East African governments and their Western and UN supporters will also use this port to send in arms, other equipment and food supplies for the invading East African forces –” or so the ICU believes, probably rightly. The ICU’s forces have taken control of the port and are in a position to thwart those plans unless, and until, they are expelled. There is hardly any doubt that the UN, the US and its Western allies are involved in the plan to protect the interim government and to end the influence of the ICU. After all, it was the UN that established the interim government in 2004 and appointed Abdullahi Yusuf, a warlord and ally of Ethiopia, as its head. At the time, Adullahi Yusuf was the leader of a group of warlords financed by the US, which was anxious to prevent any Islamic groups from filling the vacuum created by the end of Siyad Barre’s dictatorial rule in 1991. The warlords were thrown out of Mogadishu last June by the ICU, and the so-called president Yusuf and his interim government took refuge in Baidoa.

Unfortunately, the UN and the international community did not treat Yusuf and his cabinet of warlords as refugees, continuing to recognise him as president and his gang of warlords as the transitional government until such time as the planned African force disposes of the presence and influence of the ICU. The absurdity was quickly revealed when it became clear that Yusuf and his gang were not even welcome in Baidoa.

It was on September 18 that an assassination attempt was made on the life of the ‘president’, which he survived. A car thought to have been driven by a suicide bomber exploded as Yusuf was driving away from the ‘parliament’ (a converted grain warehouse). He escaped injury himself but his brother and several members of his security team were killed. Ismail Muhammad Hurre, the foreign minister, said the bombing had al-Qa’ida’s fingerprints all over it. "This is the first suicide bomber in Somalia," he said. "This was a attack aimed at assassinating the president."

The allegation that the bombing was the work of al-Qa’ida is absurd because al-Qa’ida has no presence in Somalia, contrary to the claim made by the US and its Ethiopian and Kenyan allies to justify their current meddling in Somalia and their impending armed intervention. Not only did some of the militias in Baidoa express their opposition to the interim government’s presence shortly before the assassination attempt, but Yusuf is not himself short of enemies as a former warlord and undisguised ally of Ethiopia.

There is hardly a doubt that the international community is determined that the plan to send in an African force to prop up the gang of warlords masquerading as an interim government should go ahead. But the ICU is also plainly determined to resist such a plan and fight any forces despatched under it, as its leaders have publicly vowed. The AU has decided to send peacekeepers by September 30. Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, head of the ICU, has said that his movement will engage them in battle. Touring certain African and Arab countries in mid-September, Sheikh Sharif said in Djibouti that his movement would engage the African force in a bloody battle. He added that ICU forces would fight any African forces as soon as they entered Somalia, and that all foreign military intervention was unacceptable. "We will not wait for them to reach the regions governed by the ICU but we will go to them anywhere in the country they happen to be, and defeat them," he said.

The leader of the ICU is not exaggerating when he says that any foreign forces deployed to prop up the interim government will lead to a strong resistance by supporters of the ICU. But even many Somalis who do not back the ICU would join it to fight foreign intervention –” particularly if the invading forces include Kenyan, Ethiopian and Western forces, which few Somalis will believe to be well-wishers or peacekeepers. Moreover the Muslim (particularly Somali) population of Ethiopia and Kenya will be involved in the ensuing conflict. Eritrea, which was at war with Ethiopia until recently, will also be drawn in. Already it is accused of funding and arming the ICU to fight a proxy war with Ethiopia.

While touring these Arab and African countries Sheikh Sharif, who was accompanied by other leaders of the ICU, was trying to explain the ICU’s position, particularly its rejection of AU peacekeepers. But he was also probably trying to enlist Arab and Muslim backing for the ICU, although it is doubtful whether the current rulers of these countries will be sympathetic, give the US’s influence on their foreign policies.