Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ethiopian invasion opens third front against Somali Islamists

It has taken almost 21 years, but at last there is a concerted and sustained international effort to oust Somalia’s clan warlords and religious fanatics who have terrorized the leaderless Horn of Africa country since early 1991.

Within the next few days, or even hours, the United Nations is expected to put its stamp of approval on plans to coordinate military incursions by five neighbouring countries aimed at destroying the al-Qaida-linked Shabab Islamic extremists who have ruled much of the country with medieval fanaticism since 2009.

Since 2007 troops from Uganda and Burundi, now numbering about 10,000, with the blessing of the UN and the African Union, have been trying to defend the still largely dysfunctional “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) in the capital Mogadishu.

Only recently have the Ugandan and Burundian troops had sufficient strength to push the Shabab militias out of most of the capital.

That is in part because Shabab was forced to divert resources to the south in October when Kenyan troops invaded. Despite bad weather and swampy terrain the Kenyan force, numbering about 6,000, is now pressing toward what has become Shabab’s new capital and source of income, the southern port city of Kismayo.

The Nairobi government justified its action as essential to stop Shabab from attacking Somali refugees who have flooded over the border into Kenya and who now number about 500,000.

Then, on Nov. 19, hundreds of Ethiopian troops crossed Somalia’s central northern border and last Saturday captured the key regional trading and transport hub, Beledweyne.

Many Canadians will be familiar with this name. It was occupied by Canada’s Airborne Regiment during the failed 1992-94 UN-mandated operation.

But the murder of a Somali captive led to the disbanding of the regiment and its reformation as Joint Task Force Two.

The Ethiopian troops, accompanied by Somali militias loyal to the TFG, are reported to be heading for the large central town of Baidoa, one of the few remaining Shabab strongholds.

The capture of Baidoa would make a link-up with the Burundian and Ugandan forces in Mogadishu almost certain and significantly reduce the area under Shabab control.

It is unclear the exact part being played by the United States, which has a major regional military base in nearby Djibouti and is reported to have used armed drone aircraft against terrorist suspects hiding out in Somalia.

But there are many reports in the region based on circumstantial and other evidence that the U.S. is at the very least encouraging the military actions by the nearly 18,000 troops from Kenya, Ethiopia, Burundi, Uganda and Djibouti.

Somalia has been a stain on U.S. battle honours since 1994 when the U.S.-led and UN-mandated invasion troops were withdrawn after American troops suffered severe losses in the famous Black Hawk Down incident.

U.S. interest in Somalia revived about 10 years ago when the country’s people, distraught by a decade of tyranny by local clan warlords, turned to a group called the Islamic Courts Union for security.

Within a few months this Taliban-like group and its militias had taken control of much of the country. And while the Courts Union brought a degree of peace and security, it also brought administration by strict Islamic law.

The U.S. saw Somalia controlled by the Union as another Afghanistan and haven for Islamic terrorists.

In 2006 with Washington’s encouragement Ethiopia invaded and ousted the Islamic regime from much of the country.

But the Ethiopian invaders were highly unpopular and in 2009 they withdrew.

Meanwhile the Courts Union militias had morphed into Shabab, which quickly occupied the territory vacated by the departing Ethiopians.

A significant change now, however, is that much of the Somali population appears to have turned against Shabab.

The group, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, has ruled by terror. Shabab has employed the most barbaric interpretations of Islamic law, including the chopping off of hands for minor offences. It has also blocked food aid to famine victims as well as engaging in the systemic rape of girls and young women.

The result is that for the first time since Jan. 26, 1991, when the old dictator Siad Barre was ousted by a loose coalition of clan warlords, the invading troops are being welcomed as liberators.

But there is still a long way to go and even with victory on the ground, still no guarantee the TFG can provide a functional administration.

On Wednesday a fist fight broke out in parliament between supporters of the speaker and the president. Four parliamentarians had to be hospitalized.

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