December 29, 2006

U.N. Remains Paralysed Over Fighting in Somalia

By Thalif Deen - Inter Press Service

United Nations, 29 December, (IPS): When the United Nations failed to take immediate action during the month-long Israeli attacks on Lebanon last July, the Security Council was accused of deliberately dragging its feet to provide more time for a decisive military victory by the Jewish state.

The 15-member Security Council took more than a month to adopt a resolution calling for a ceasefire, by which time hundreds and thousands of Lebanese civilians had been killed by Israeli airstrikes which left parts of Beirut in shambles.

"We will probably watch a similar scenario in the Horn of Africa if the Security Council does not act immediately," predicts an Arab diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Since Sunday, the militarily-strong Ethiopian government has been unleashing its firepower against the ragtag forces of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) based in the capital of Mogadishu.

The Ethiopian government, which has received tacit support from the United States, is backing the forces of the Baidoa-based Transitional Federal Government (TFG) engaged in a turf battle with the UIC inside Somalia.

Asked whether the Security Council was "giving time to the Ethiopians to finish whatever they are doing there," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan came up with a politically cautious response.

"I think the Council is in a genuine debate, and I hope they will be able to conclude their discussion," he told reporters Wednesday.

But he said he did speak to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who assured Annan that the military attack was a "limited operation".

Asked to elaborate, Annan said: "I don't want to go beyond that. He indicated they are not there for a long stay, it is a limited operation. And hopefully, they will be out in a few days."

Virtually calling for the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia, Annan also said "it is essential that neighboring governments stay out of this."

Zenawi said Tuesday that between 3,000 and 4,000 Ethiopian troops had "broken the backs" of Islamic forces. But he gave no indication when his troops will withdraw.

The conflict in Somalia was triggered by a long simmering dispute between Somalia's transitional government in Baidoa and the Islamic force in Mogadishu. The United States has been providing support to the transitional government on the ground that the Islamic force has ties to alQaeda.

Meanwhile, a divided Security Council is discussing a draft resolution which calls for "all foreign forces (to) immediately withdraw from the territories of Somalia and cease their military operations inside Somalia."

But that paragraph is in dispute because of opposition, primarily from the United States and most members of the Council. The draft, with strong support from the League of Arab states, is the brainchild of Qatar, a non-permanent member and current president of the Security Council.

Rev. Gabriel Odima, president of the Africa Centre for Peace and Democracy, said the current war in Somalia is a wake-up call for the Horn of Africa. A political map of Somalia will show that the state is now only geography, with no government, he added.

"The international community has failed the people of Somalia in the last 16 years, and what appears to be a hidden agenda is beginning to emerge in Somalia," Rev. Odima told IPS.

War is not the answer to the current situation in Somalia, he said. "Ethiopia should pull out of Somalia and there should be a dialogue among the leaders to find a political solution for Somalia."

"And it is time for the United States to encourage all parties involved in the Somalia crisis to seek a political settlement and bring this carnage to an end," he added.

Tom Baranauskas, a senior military analyst monitoring developments in the Middle East/Africa at the Connecticut-based Forecast International, predicts that the Ethiopians should prevail on the conventional battlefield.

"However, the Islamists are indicating that they plan to move to guerrilla-type operations, which the Ethiopians are likely to be more vulnerable to," he told IPS.

Counter-insurgency requires a flexible mindset that the Ethiopian military with its legacy of Soviet training probably cannot do very well.

Furthermore, he noted, the Ethiopian military has serious morale problems dating back several years to widespread civil strife following the disputed results of the May 2005 legislative elections.

He also pointed out that there has been increasing desertions of Ethiopian military personnel, including pilots.

Also, while the military is being reorganized into a professional force, there is still a significant presence of former militias within the ranks that do not yet appear to have been completely integrated.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has also been involved in a longstanding border war with its neighbor Eritrea.

Annan has described the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea as "a classic example of tragedy" in the African continent.

"Two poor countries desperately in need of development, desperately in need of food security to be able to protect their people (and who) went to war," Annan said last October.

He said the two countries have been at war "over a territory, over a misunderstanding of a region called Badme, which is a barren place." "They spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy equipment, to arm their military and they fought," he said.

Since Ethiopia's incursion into Somalia last Sunday, there have been reports that Eritrea has been sending troops to boost the Islamic forces, thereby threatening to turn the war into a regional conflict.

Baranauskas said both countries have been supplied with weapons from the same sources: Russia and former Soviet republics.

He also pointed out that there have been rumors for over a year that Eritrea is looking to use Somalia for a proxy war against Ethiopia.

"It certainly would help Eritrea's strategic position if Ethiopia gets dragged into an extended conflict, which will both sap its resources and divert its attention," he said.

Ethiopia's history of border disputes with Somalia (the two countries fought a bitter war in 1977 over control of the Ogaden) makes it likely that Ethiopia will be looking to resolve these via force of arms.

"What I find particularly interesting about the recent fighting is how quiet Eritrea has been. It has already shown an inclination to support the Islamist militias, and Ethiopia's now overt support of the U.N.-backed Somali government raises the ante for Eritrea to in turn raise its level of support for the Islamists, who I am certain, have approached Eritrea to increase its support accordingly," Baranauskas said.

From all indications, he added, this could turn into quite a mess that can also drag in neighboring countries such as Kenya, which has been increasing its troop presence on the Somali border as tensions have increased there.

Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency

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