From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Wed Mar 25 2009 - 08:02:33 EST
Somalia: US policy shift towards Islamists after Ethiopian pullout
By Brian Smith
25 March 2009
Last month Somali MPs elected Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, leader of the
Djibouti-based Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), as the
country's new president. Sharif was previously chairman of the Union of
Islamic Courts (UIC), which briefly ruled Somalia in 2006 before the United
States-backed Ethiopian invasion forced the UIC into exile in Eritrea.
Ethiopia began pulling out troops in 2008, having succeeded in uniting
Somalia's various Islamic and clan-based militias against it. Ethiopian
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi complained that the West had not given Ethiopia
enough political and financial support. Washington had backed the stooge
Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of warlords, which recently collapsed
following the Ethiopian withdrawal.
After Ethiopia withdrew, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM),
comprising around 3,400 Ugandan and Burundian troops, remained in Mogadishu,
though Uganda is considering pulling out citing lack of money, equipment and
Whilst the new Obama administration has made no official comment on Sharif's
election, the US embassy in Kenya issued a statement welcoming it, which is
something of a policy turnaround with Washington having previously denounced
the UIC as an affiliate of Al-Qaeda. Other western governments have also
been supportive of Sharif and his new government.
Sharif for his part has welcomed the coming to power of Barack Obama and
glossed over the brutal actions of the US/Ethiopian intervention.
Early in 2008 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) facilitated talks
in Djibouti that sought to bring the "moderate" elements of the ARS
opposition into negotiations with the rump TFG and Ethiopia. This split the
ARS into two factions: ARS-Djibouti, led by Sharif, which took part in the
talks and agreed to a ceasefire; and ARS-Asmara, led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir
'Aweys', which called for Sharif's expulsion and refused to negotiate with
foreign elements whilst Ethiopia remained in the country.
In June 2008 Sharif's faction and the TFG signed an accord in Djibouti on
the cessation of hostilities, Ethiopia's withdrawal, plans for a government
of national unity, and the establishment of a 10,000-strong national
security force comprising both ARS and government troops.
The Djibouti Agreement set out that the new parliament would be comprised of
550 seats, up from 275, with the new MPs being drawn primarily from the
ARS-Djibouti faction. Consequently 149 new opposition members from the ARS
were sworn in to parliament just before the recent presidential election,
which was subsequently won by Sharif.
The US now tacitly welcomes an Islamist government that is not markedly
different from the one that the US/Ethiopian invasion of Somalia helped to
overthrow, with so much loss of life from the subsequent violence and chaos.
An estimated 1.2 million Somalis have fled their homes, and 16,000 civilians
have been killed in the ensuing Iraq-style insurgency that plunged the
country into chaos, where warlords and pirates flourished.
Human Rights Watch has issued an open letter to the African Union (AU)
Commission Chairman Jean Ping that says the policies of many governments had
been destructive in Somalia, and calls for the UNSC to initiate a commission
of inquiry into human rights abuses.
"US policy on Somalia has been particularly unhelpful, treating Somalia's
complex realities as a theatre in the 'war on terror' while turning a blind
eye to rampant abuses by the Ethiopian and transitional government forces,"
The letter follows a report in May 2008 in which Amnesty International
accused the Ethiopian troops in Somalia of increasingly gruesome methods
that include rape, torture and throat-slitting executions.
Somalia is one of the three poorest countries in the world, with a budget
almost entirely dependent on foreign aid, and is characterized by
chronically high rates of acute malnutrition. UNICEF estimates that 3.2
million Somalis (around 43 percent of the country's population) including
1.4 million children are in need of emergency livelihood and life saving
assistance. Approximately 330,000 Somali children are expected to be acutely
malnourished over the course of 2009, with 96,000 severely so. This is a 77
percent increase since January 2008.
Although Ethiopia formally welcomed Sharif's election, on the day after he
was swore in it launched an incursion into Somalia intending to show that it
still holds some control. Prime Minister Zenawi told Africa Confidential,
"If the Al Shabaab [Islamic militia] got control of Somalia, we would go in
and remove them again. That's non-negotiable."
He also warned that if they did return it would not be to protect the AU
Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops, but rather that Ethiopian units would
track down "terrorist" groups, reprising a role it played in the late 1990s
when it pursued an Islamic militia in support of US interests.
Al Shabaab was initially the youth wing of the UIC, though, unlike those who
relocated to Eritrea, its members largely remained in Somalia following the
Ethiopian intervention and began a successful guerrilla war against the
Ethiopian and TFG troops. It slowly gained control of huge swathes of the
country, including the southern port of Kismayo, and with its allies took
control of the recently abandoned Ethiopian bases and the seat of government
Al Shabaab promotes an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam and is listed
as a terrorist organization by the US. Like the ARS-Asmara faction, with
whom it maintained links, it is bitterly opposed to the Djibouti Agreement.
The election of Sharif, who is widely regarded as a religious figure,
coupled with the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, which removed a rallying
point, has shaken up the political landscape in Somalia and at least
temporarily undermined groups such as Al Shabaab.
Al Shabaab has begun to divide into smaller, clan or sub-clan units of a few
dozen fighters and faces serious competition from other Islamist groups,
both oppositional and pro-government. There have been reports of sporadic
conflict breaking out.
US interventions going back over decades have first whipped up clan
divisions and now threaten to sink the country into a factional religious
Al Shabaab had previously upset some Islamist groups when some of its
members destroyed the tombs of Sufi saints in the Kismayo area. This
provoked popular hostility and mobilised several militias, loosely organised
in the Ahlu Sunna wal Jama'a confederation, to which the departing Ethiopian
troops allegedly provided weapons and ammunition.
Some oppositional Islamists, including a number of ex-Al Shabaab units, have
regrouped under a new umbrella, Hizbul Islam (Party of Islam), led by Omar
Imam Abubaker, who was deputy chairman to Aweys in the UIC parliament in
2006. If Hizbul Islam survives it could become a rallying point for those
disgruntled with Sharif.
Sharif announced that he has agreed to proposals for a truce with some
insurgent groups. However, Hizbul Islam and Al Shabaab have rejected the
ceasefire offer and will continue to battle AMISOM troops until they leave
the country. Sharif has now announced that the government will make Sharia
law the basis of the country's legal system. Whilst this is designed to
undermine the increasingly divided Islamic insurgency, Sharif was at pains
to point out that he won't agree to a strict interpretation of Sharia, and
that it would still allow women to serve in parliament. The Ministry of
Justice would also continue to select judges, and police would still have
the power to detain suspects and carry out sentences.
"They have no option but to accept peace," Sharif said somewhat hopefully,
though he has set about shoring up military alliances in the event the
insurgents do not back down.
If Somali reconciliation fails, there will again be growing calls from the
Western powers for military intervention. The African Union has been
lobbying for AMISOM to be strengthened and for increased Western backing, a
demand repeated by Somali Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdulahi Oomar at the
Security Council last week.
However, the foreign minister's call was opposed by members of Sharif's
Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, as well as by clan elders and a
powerful group of clerics called the Somali Islamic Scholars Association
that backs the new government. They have called for AMISOM to be withdrawn,
fearing that its continued presence will rally support for Al Shabaab and
other militias. For the time being Western governments have put calls for a
possible UN intervention on hold, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
reporting to the Security Council that there are "uncertainties" about such
a force being the right tool to support the new government.
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