January 04, 2007

Worries over a fragile peace

Ethiopians split over decision to get involved in Somalia's civil war

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - The headline in an Ethiopian newspaper drew familiar, if unflattering, comparisons to another nation's faster-than-expected victory in a war abroad.

"Mission Accomplished," blared Addis Ababa's Daily Monitor in a story about Ethiopian forces' triumph over Somali Islamists last week.
Just as the Iraq invasion has divided Americans, Ethiopians are split on their government's decision to get involved in Somalia's brewing civil war by sending troops across the border.

After just a week of fighting, Ethiopian troops enabled Somalia's transitional government to regain control of a vast swath of southern Somalia seized by Somalia's Islamic Courts Union over the past six months. A week ago, Ethiopian and Somalia government troops reached the outskirts of the capital city, Mogadishu, with Islamic forces having fled or faded into the populace.

Pre-emptive strike

Ethiopian leaders have called the intervention a pre-emptive strike against the spread of religious extremism in the Horn of Africa. They say the world should thank Ethiopia for defeating a militant Islamist coalition U.S. officials accuse of terrorist links, including to al-Qaida.

Others worry the foray could backfire over time by stirring up political instability at home, or driving Islamic terrorists to set their sights on Ethiopia.

There is no polling to measure public attitudes, and recent government crackdowns against opposition leaders and journalists have made some afraid to express their views. But nearly everyone, including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, agrees the issue has sparked debate.

"It's natural to have disagreements on fundamental issues," Meles said last Thursday. Yet he stressed Ethiopian people overwhelmingly support the action in Somalia.

Last month, about 75 percent of Ethiopia's parliament voted in favor of a Somalia engagement. But opposition leaders said it was the closest vote they've had in a legislative body heavily dominated by Meles' party.

Noting that Islamists have threatened guerrilla tactics against Ethiopians, opposition leader Beyene Petros was not convinced the threat posed by the Islamic courts merited Ethiopia's declaration of war. "Ethiopia should not be bogged down in a problem that is not ours," he said. "This is not Ethiopia's problem. It's all of Africa's."

He also worried the government might use a perceived threat of terrorism to crack down on political enemies.

After last year's disputed election, Meles was criticized for his response to large student demonstrations. Nearly 200 were killed and many elected opposition leaders remain in prison, awaiting trial for treason.

Supporters of the intervention in Somalia point to the Islamists' declaration of a "holy war" against Ethiopia. "It's self-defense," said Amare Aregawi, editor of The Reporter and a former rebel fighter. "People always say, 'Don't touch the terrorists. You'll aggravate them.'What are we supposed to do? Flatter them?"

Others said the Islamists in Somalia were merely a front for international jihadists or other enemies of Ethiopia.

"I believe this whole thing came from Eritrea," said Michael Kirstus, 29, a customs worker. International experts said Eritrea dispatched 2,000 troops to aid the Islamists, though the government denied it.

Allegations of U.S. involvement have been another hot-button issue in Ethiopia. Many believe the United States used Ethiopia to launch a proxy war against the Islamists. "This was an American-made war," said Akmel Negash, 22, a student.

Meles last week denied American soldiers or weapons were used in any battles, though he noted the long-standing agreement the United States and Ethiopia have to share intelligence.

"We are not fighting anybody's war," Meles said. "We are fighting to defend ourselves."

He said that during a visit last month by U.S. Gen. John Abizaid, the American commander advised against a Somalia invasion.

"He shared his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan with us and he indicated that we have, to the maximum extent possible, to avoid direct military intervention in Somalia," Meles said.

Sensitive subject

The war against Somalia's Islamists has been a touchy topic in Ethiopia's Muslim community. The country is about evenly split between Christians and Muslims, but Christians have dominated the government and Muslims were often oppressed.

The communities have largely coexisted in peace, but last year Muslim and Christian villagers clashed in southwest Ethiopia over a conflict about religious holidays. Churches were burned and more than a dozen died.

"Muslims in Ethiopia are angry," said Isaac Eshetu, 25, a student. "For 2,000 years, they've been living as strangers in their own motherland."

He opposes violence or imposing his religion on others, but "as a Muslim, I would like to live under an Islamic government."

Some Muslims questioned whether Ethiopia's Christian leaders launched the attack out of fear an Islamic government in Somalia might encourage Ethiopia's Muslims to seek the same.

Other Ethiopian Muslims said they supported the war. "I'm Muslim, but I don't identify with them," said Mohammed Arab, 33, a waiter in Addis Ababa. "They believe in holy war. I don't."

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