Playing with fire

Ethiopian attacks on Somali Islamists threaten to ignite a regional conflict in the Horn of Africa.
Houston Chronicle
The world got just what it didn't need this Christmas season: another bloody, sectarian battleground in a strategic area of the world, this time the northeast coastal bend of Africa bordering vital Red Sea shipping lanes.
The standoff between Christian Ethiopian forces, who are propping up the recognized but ineffective provisional Somali government, and Muslim fundamentalists controlling the capital, Mogadishu, and much of the country flared last week.
The United States first put its chips on corrupt Somali warlords, only to see them routed by the Islamist Courts movement this summer. Ironically, it was a warlord militia that killed 18 U.S. soldiers during the famous Blackhawk Down incident in the early 1990s. U.S. troops had entered Somalia then on a humanitarian mission after the overthrow of strongman Siad Barre resulted in a state of anarchy. After the United States withdrew its forces in 1994, a two-year U.N. peacekeeping effort failed to restore law and order. That allowed fundamentalist forces in the Muslim nation to gather popular support from a population desperate for some semblance of order.
American forces are based in nearby Djibouti and are advising the Ethiopian military. U.S. diplomats reportedly encouraged Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to intervene in Somalia on behalf of the provisional government of President Abdullah Yusuf, headquartered in the provincial town of Baidoa.
After Islamist forces advanced on Baidoa, Ethiopian troops bolstered by tanks and heavy weaponry counterattacked, decimating units made up mostly of lightly armed teenagers. Ethiopian jets also bombed targets in the Islamist strongholds around Mogadishu. That hasn't stopped the Islamist leaders from declaring a jihad against Ethiopia and inviting Muslim fighters from around the Middle East to join their forces.
While the powerful Ethiopian army might temporarily rout its foes, diplomats worry that the conflict could produce an insurgency that could go on for years. The Ethiopian military might be strong enough to take major Somali cities, but it is unlikely to be able to root out a guerilla movement sustained by Muslim communities.
Neighboring Eritrea, predominantly Muslim and historically a foe of Ethiopia, has sent volunteers to aid the Islamists, and Ethiopia's restive Muslims, roughly half the country's population, could rise up against the Christian regime. Such turmoil can only provide another inviting environment for al-Qaida and other extreme Islamist groups.
By allying itself first with violent and corrupt warlords and then with Ethiopia, the United States has only bolstered support for the Islamists. Now that the fighting has reached a level that threatens to expand into a regional war, Washington should use what influence it has to restrain Ethiopia while promoting talks between the provisional government and the Islamist leaders.
With the Islamists temporarily in retreat, international pressure should be brought to bear on all parties to seek a negotiated settlement. As the Iraq war has demonstrated all too clearly, military action in situations that demand political solutions only guarantees open-ended conflicts in which the people who suffer most are innocent noncombatants.

posted by Ethiounited Moderator at10:04 PM

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