December 27, 2006

Ethiopia faces Somalia quagmire

By Edmund Sanders
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

Nairobi: Ethiopia's attacks against Islamic forces in Somalia may have delivered a short-term military victory, but analysts warned that a longer offensive could present the US ally with some of the same challenges facing American forces in Iraq.

Airstrikes against the Somali capital Mogadishu and other towns on Sunday and Monday demonstrated Ethiopia's military superiority over the Islamic forces that seized most of southern Somalia during the summer.

But Ethiopia would be hard-pressed to dispatch enough troops to capture and occupy Islamic-held areas of Somalia.

"I don't understand what Ethiopia's objective is," said David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia and now political science professor at George Washington University. "I can't imagine their objective is to occupy and hold Somalia. It was a very limited victory."

Most experts agree that Ethiopia's battle-tested army, numbering as many as 150,000 fighters, could easily beat Somalia's rag-tag Islamic troops, which are believed to total under 10,000. But Islamists say they would compensate for their lack of numbers and sophisticated weaponry by pursing an unconventional war, including suicide attacks and other insurgency-style tactics that US and allied troops face in Iraq.

"The Ethiopians could get bogged down into a hopeless, long-term guerrilla campaign with enormous supply lines," Shinn said. "I don't see how they 'defeat' the Islamists in the long run."

The attacks on Sunday and Monday marked the first time Ethiopia has publicly acknowledged taking direct military action against Somalia's Islamists.

Ethiopian officials said they acted to preempt threats by Islamic forces to launch a "holy war" against them. Ethiopia is also moving to protect Somalia's weak transitional government, which has been battling with Islamists over who will control the Horn of Africa nation. Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991.

History of tensions

Anger over the Ethiopian air strikes reverberated on Monday through Mogadishu. Local radio stations flooded the airways with nationalist songs, recalling the history of tensions between Ethiopia and Somali, which last went to war in 1977.

Angry youths rioted in several Somali cities, urging all adult males to join the Islamic forces. The attacks appeared to be bolstering support for the Islamic forces.

"I used to think that the Islamic courts were just another interest group, but now I recognise that they are standing up for the country and religion," said Muse Ali Omar, a banana vendor in Mogadishu. "Ethiopia is my enemy, I will not sell bananas any more. I will take my gun and go for jihad. Otherwise I am sure they will kill me in my banana kiosk if I wait for them here."

Mohammad Ebrahim Mohammad, a moderate Muslim, said, "As long as the West is supporting Ethiopian invasion, it will open the door for Islamic courts.''

The Ethiopian strikes have helped unify the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders that came together to defeat US-backed warlords earlier this year. In recent months, some cracks were beginning to appear inside the alliance over how rigorously to implement Islamic law.

But in recent weeks, US and Ethiopian officials have concluded that extremists have seized control of the courts. They accuse court leaders of having links to terrorist groups, including Al Qaida. Last weekend, one Islamist leader issued an invitation to Muslims worldwide to join the fighting in Somalia. The nation of Eritrea is also believed to have dispatched as many as 2,000 troops to aid the Islamists.

US officials on Monday called on Somali groups to end their fighting, but they did not call for an Ethiopian withdrawal.

"Ethiopia has genuine security concerns," said one US official, adding that State Department officials have urged the Ethiopian government to use "maximum restraint."

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