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Somalia in danger of reverting to chaos, U.S. military says
Somalia in danger of reverting to chaos, U.S. military says

The Associated Press
Published: January 28, 2007

DOHA, Qatar: U.S. military officials here said Somalia could return to chaos in four months if international peacekeepers don't quickly replace departing Ethiopian troops now propping up the country's weak government.

A Somali government spokesman echoed the warning on Sunday, saying Islamic fighters were regrouping and the U.S.-backed transitional government lacked troops, training and weapons to deal with them.

"We need the support of the international community to deploy forces and assist us in securing the country," said Abdirahman Dinari by telephone from Mogadishu. Dinari said fighters from the deposed Council of Islamic Courts were counterattacking just as the invading Ethiopians have begun pulling out.

Islamic fighters "are coming back to Mogadishu," Dinari said. "They're destabilizing sections of the city. They're killing innocent civilians. They're attacking police stations."

A pair of U.S. military officials interviewed in Qatar last week said a worrying power vacuum was developing in Somalia, with Ethiopian troops hastening their departure amid reports that the army that invaded in December is being debilitated by malaria. Both U.S. officers spoke on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the information.

Most troubling, one officer said, was that none of the 10 to 20 Council of Islamic Courts leaders or their al-Qaida allies are known to have been killed or captured, and most of the few-thousand-strong militia remains intact inside Somalia.

"They're probably just lying low. They're probably waiting for Ethiopia to leave," the U.S. officer said.

Heightening the pressure, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told The Associated Press on Sunday that he would pull a third of his troops out of Somalia within the next two days. Meles was speaking on the eve of an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

The African Union has approved a plan to send about 8,000 peacekeepers for a six-month mission that would eventually be taken over by the U.N. Nigeria, Malawi and Uganda have said they want to contribute troops, but no firm plans are in place. South Africa, meanwhile, says its forces are too stretched to contribute.

Ethiopian forces have been widely credited with a quick success in ousting the Islamic Courts militia from controlling most of Somalia and installing the weak, U.N.-recognized government in the capital, Mogadishu.

U.S. forces played a limited role in the campaign, training and supplying the Ethiopian army, mounting air raids on militia targets and stationing a U.S. Navy carrier battle group off the Somali coast.

But impoverished Ethiopia lacks funds and staying power to sustain an occupation of its chaotic neighbor. And the U.S. military has no plans to increase its role beyond backing its Ethiopian allies, the U.S. official said. When Ethiopia finishes its mission, the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its accompanying ships will leave the Somali coast, he said.

"When Ethiopia pulls out, we'll reduce our presence there," he said.

The officer said U.S.-allied Ethiopian army was already losing its ability to maintain long supply lines into neighboring Somalia.

"It worries all of us," the officer said, suggesting Washington and European Union needed to quickly fund a peacekeeping force that could secure the country and allow economic life to return, otherwise the deposed militia could use the vacuum to make good on threats to launch an Iraq-style insurgency. "Four to six months is all they've got. It could go back to the status quo."

The U.S. official said he thought the pullout would be finished in four to six months. But Dinari said the Ethiopian pullout would could be over in weeks.

"They've already started crossing the border," he said. "Within weeks they will finalize their withdrawal."

In the meantime, no date has been given for the arrival of a Somalia peacekeeping force that has yet to develop.

Many Somalis resent the Ethiopian presence; the countries fought a war in 1977. But without Ethiopia's tanks and fighter jets, the Somali government could barely assert control outside one town and could not enter the capital, Mogadishu, which was ruled by the Council of Islamic Courts.

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