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Next stop Somalia?
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Having completed the almost complete rout of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Somalia appears to be the next United States target for its war on terrorism as several US officials reportedly visited the Somali Town of Baidoa at the weekend to meet local authorities and rebel groups.

The US strategy is once again likely to focus on cultivating local rebel groups to take action against those with suspected terrorist links in Somalia, analysts believe. "It's a country virtually without a government, a country that has a certain Al-Qaeda presence already," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said on Monday.

According to reports, senior US officials made unheralded visits to Baidoa on Sunday, where they met with local authorities and flew out on the same day. The mission was to explore the viability of stirring indigenous rebel elements against the government, much as was the case in Afghanistan, but this time the frontline state is Ethiopia. At the same time, Washington has substantially beefed up its naval presence along Somalia's coast and in and around the Gulf of Aden.

Baidoa, which is 155 kilometers from the capital Mogadishu, is controlled by the Rahanwein Resistance Army (RRA), an armed group that operates with Ethiopia's backing against the Transitional National Government (TNG) in the capital. Low-ranking RRA members confirmed the visit of US officers, and said that uniformed soldiers accompanied them from Ethiopia.

The transitional government of President Abdiqasim Salat Hassan has denied the presence of any groups that have links with Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, but US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Walter H Kansteiner, has said that the Al-Itihaad, an organization based in Somalia, has ties with Al-Qaeda. Kansteiner also suggested that some members of the TNG had similar connections, but insisted that the US was still in the process of gathering more information.

On Wednesday, Hussein Aideed, co-chairman of the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SSRC), which groups opponents of the transitional government, said fighters forced out of Afghanistan by the US offensive wanted to set up a Taliban-style Islamic administration in the Horn of Africa state. "These groups have unlimited funds which they receive from Islamic non-governmental organizations and Arab states which they are using to woo poverty-stricken Somalis to their side," Aideed said, saying that "57 terrorist leaders have recently entered the country and had concealed weapons".

According to sources, US authorities have made a case against Somalia and have gathered evidence that one of Al-Qaeda's financial hubs in the region is operated from Somalia. Indications are that this is the Al-Barakaat Group, owned by Ahmed Nur Ali Jimale, a former Somali banker, and said to be a good friend of bin Laden. Although he has rejected allegations of links with any terrorist network, the White House has listed Al-Barakaat as operating 60 offices in Somalia and 127 branches in other countries to transmit money and information to terrorist cells.

Two men who run a business called Barakaat North America Inc in Dorchester, Massachusetts, have been charged with running an illegal money transmitting business, according to a federal criminal complaint filed in Boston.

RRA officials are convinced that Al-Qaeda operates in the country and insist that they will provide bases and troops in any US fight against terrorism in the country. The RRA's only hard proof is the majority representation of religious groups in the Transitional National Assembly.

Ethiopia, which sent troops into Somalia to crush an Islamist militia group linked to bin Laden, the al-Itihaad al Islamiya (Islamic Unity), has been trying to persuade Washington that the group remains a potent force both in Somalia and in the transitional Somali government in Mogadishu.

In October, the Ethiopian ambassador at the United Nations accused Somalia of harboring international terrorists, a charge strongly denied by Somalia's Hussein. Washington is concerned, though, that Addis Ababa exaggerated the group's presence and strength in the hopes of persuading the US to help oust the regime in Mogadishu, which enjoys support from Djibouti, Egypt and Addis Ababa's nemesis, Eritrea.

Somalia holds bad memories for the Pentagon. In the fall of 1993, the world watched in horror as the bruised, naked corpse of an American soldier was dragged by a rope through the streets of Mogadishu. Under President George W Bush's father, Washington led a UN peace-keeping mission there in December 1992 to protect food deliveries to Somalis caught up in the factional fighting that erupted after the ouster of longtime dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Within 18 months, however, the United States found itself engaged in a bloody and ultimately disastrous manhunt for renegade faction leader Mohammed Farah Aideed.

Washington began withdrawing its forces after a failed helicopter raid on a suspected Aideed hideout in Mogadishu in October 1993 that ended with 18 US soldiers and hundreds of Somali civilians and militia fighters killed. The last US troops left Somalia in March 1994. The fiasco resulted in the enactment of tight constraints on US participation in UN peace-keeping missions, especially in Africa. US authorities had believed that attacks on US soldiers were orchestrated by Aideed and other groups backed by bin Laden in Somalia.

Six months after the withdrawal of the international peacekeeping troops from Somalia, the type and level of foreign involvement in Somalia continues to be a key factor influencing political developments in the country.

Following the toppling of dictator Siyad Barre in January 1991, the allied liberation militias split along clan lines. After a mass exodus of members of the Daarood group of clans from Mogadishu, the approaching Hawiye militia (USC) split in two sub-factions, one following hotel-owner Ali Mahdi of the Abgaal clan and the other General Aideed of the opposing Habar Gedir clan. The capital and much of the rural interior - has since remained divided in spheres of interest belonging to either of these two militias or their allies.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this southern Somali deadlock has been the shifting character of the followings of Ali Mahdi and Aideed. Both leaders were quick to strike alliances with individual Daarood clans and also forced areas they militarily dominated - such as the clans in the inter-riverine zone which were brutally conquered several times in 1992 - to become their loyal supporters.

However, the allegiances changed rapidly and even within the Abgaal and Habar Gedir clans, support for the self-appointed leaders is not certain. Some important Abgaal businessmen have throughout the crisis sided with Aideed and, conversely, a leading Habar Gedir general has fought with his militia on Ali Mahdi's side.

At one stage Aideed's chief-financier, Osman Ali Ato, broke with Aideed and formed a new movement which quickly turned to the Ali Mahdi side for support. The political polarization between the SSA (Somali Salvation Alliance), headed by Ali Mahdi and the the SNA (Somali National Alliance), headed by Aideed, has affected the entire political fabric so that a large number of the smaller factions are now effectively split into one SSA and one SNA-loyal subfaction.

However, the strength of the factions has dwindled dramatically. With the departure of UNOSOM (the UN's operation in Somalia) and the loss of the large funds they made available in the form of salaries and generous support for various meetings staged between the factions, and given the generally diminishing influx of foreign aid, the factions' systems of patronage and redistribution of loot have begun to break up and the leaders are seriously questioned.

(Additional reporting from Inter Press Service)

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