Return of Somalia's Warlords

So limited is the transitional government's power that Abdullahi Yusuf (3rd from right), Somalia's "president," has been unable to visit the capital for more than 20 years.

"As long as I'm breathing, I will fight with the foreign troops who are coming to our country," said Abdiqadir Hassan Diriye, Associated Press reported on Feb. 1. Hassan Diriye was one of hundreds of protesters in Mogadishu demonstrating in response to the African Union's announcement the day before that three battalions of AU "peacekeepers" would be deployed in Somalia.

"We don't want foreign troops" and "Down with Ethiopia" read the placards of protesters, who A.P. described as supporters of the Islamic Courts Union (I.C.U.)—the heterogeneous Islamic alliance that in June last year ousted the warlords who had dominated Mogadishu since the early 1990's.

The I.C.U. regime, which had progressively taken control of much of Somalia, was overthrown in December by an Ethiopian invasion force backed—financially and militarily—by the United States. In theory, the Transitional Federal Government—a United Nations-supported body that for most of its existence has led only a nominal existence—is now in control of the country.

Since its formation the transitional government has been based in Baidoa. So limited is its power that Abdullahi Yusuf, Somalia's "president," has been unable to visit the capital for more than 20 years. The transitional government has been involved in a shifting series of alliances with the Mogadishu warlords, whose domination of the capital was characterized by chaos, violence, economic dysfunction, and misery for the majority of the city's residents.

The I.C.U.—which is accused by the United States of hiding Al Qaeda members involved in the 1998 embassy bombings of Kenya and Tanzania (the I.C.U. denies this)—grew in influence from the mid-1990's, in large part from the provision of basic services such as education, which were virtually non-existent after 1991. The courts also provided legal services, based on varied interpretations of Sharia law.

The ouster of the I.C.U. has raised the prospect of warlord rule once again dominating the country. Part of the I.C.U.'s popular appeal was that, despite some of the courts implementing socially regressive policies, they provided a modicum of stability.

The fall of the I.C.U. has raised the possibility of the country once again being dominated by warlordism. A.P. reported, "Factional violence has again become a feature of life in Mogadishu since the Islamic movement fled. Mortar and grenade attacks have also been launched against Ethiopian and government troop garrisons in the city."

Behind the I.C.U.'s Rise

"This has blown up in our face, frankly." This blunt assessment by John Prendergast—a former adviser to the National Security Council and the State Department who is currently working for the International Crisis Group—wasn't about the January bombing of villages in southern Somalia by the United States. Prendergast was speaking some eight months ago about the clandestine American project of funding the warlords to try to quell the rise of radical Islamist forces in the northeastern African country.

He told the June 8, 2006, New York Times that through the C.I.A.'s program of helping to fund weapons for Somali warlords the United States had "strengthened the hand of the people whose presence we were most worried about"—the I.C.U.

Since the 22-year dictatorship of Mohamed Said Barre was ended in 1991, Somalia has been a country without a state. The transitional government, formed in late 2004, is the 14th attempt to create a government since the Barre regime collapsed. Throughout the period after Barre's fall, factions of the former national army have formed into rival warlord-controlled militias. The warlords split the capital into fiefdoms and have waged bloody battles for control of the country.

Officially, Washington denies funding the warlords, although aid workers with the Red Cross and other organizations in Mogadishu told the June 5, 2006, Newsweek that they had seen "many Americans with thick necks and short haircuts moving around carrying big suitcases."

This policy created a lot of controversy even within the Bush administration. In April 2006, Somalia expert Michael Zorick was given an early transfer from his diplomatic post in Kenya after sending out a memo critical of the policy of funding warlords, which has been estimated at between $100,000 and $150,000 per month. The policy, in keeping with much of the "behind the scenes" activity of the C.I.A. in the "war on terror," prompted former C.I.A. counter-terrorism official Philip Giraldi to comment: "We're creating a new mess. Everything is tactical with this administration: catching a guy, catching a guy. I don't see that anyone has thought about the strategic issue of losing support."

John Abizaid—head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM)—visited Ethiopia on Dec. 4, just weeks before Addis Ababa launched its invasion of Somalia. There are reports that American special operations forces have been in Somalia as far back as June last year.

A Return to Warlord Rule?

The military presence of Ethiopia, an American proxy and longtime enemy of Somalia due to contended territory in the Ogaden, will also spark outrage and may, ironically, further strengthen support for the I.C.U. Ethiopia has claimed that it will withdraw all its troops by mid-February as they are replaced by African Union forces, however the transitional government looks like it will remain dependent on some combination of foreign backing and warlord alliances for its survival.

American air strikes ostensibly targeting the I.C.U. militia fighters as they withdrew from Mogadishu have undoubtedly fueled the flames of anti-American sentiment in Somalia—a country that has seen more than its fair share of clumsy, bloody interventions by Washington.

Some members of the transitional government were very much in favor of the American air strikes. Yusuf commented that "the Americans are cracking down on Al Qaeda terrorists all over the world and this was part of it"—this, despite the United States bombing Somali in January, killing up to 31 people. reported on Jan. 11, "More than 100 Somali civilians have been killed this week in U.S. and Ethiopian air strikes in southern Somalia, according to clan elders and residents."

Absuge Mohamed Weli, a Dhobley resident, said, "I was with a team sent to the bombardment areas near the Dhobley village to bury the dead, what I have seen was really terrible. I counted 29 dead people, some of them burned so they could not be identified, and we have buried them. I have seen more dead bodies in the forest, I recognized some of them and they were local civilians." He added, "They were killed while keeping their animals. I have also seen animals, most of them cows, dead in villages."

From Green Left Weekly.