U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa may aid al-Qaida, experts warn

By Jonathan S. Landay and Shashank Bengali
McClatchy Newspapers

NAIROBI, Kenya — As fighting intensified Friday between Somali Islamists and an Ethiopian intervention force, Western diplomats and experts warned that U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa - intended to curb Islamic radicalism - may not only be fueling this newest conflict, but also may be making it easier for al-Qaida to gain a foothold in the strategic region.
Fighting raged for a fourth day around Baidoa, the last bastion of Somalia's U.N.-recognized Transitional Federal Government, which is depending on Ethiopian troops for its survival. Both Islamists and the government claimed advances after what was described as a heavy artillery exchange.
The top Islamist official renewed his call for "jihad" against what he said was Ethiopian invaders, and there were reports of an armored column of Ethiopian tanks heading into central Somalia.
The Ethiopian government, which had denied having troops in Somalia, said Friday that it had been patient with a situation that had gone "from bad to worse" and said "there is a limit." Ethiopia has said it will not tolerate an Islamist regime in neighboring Somalia.
Officials close to the Somali parliament confirmed Friday that more Ethiopian reinforcements had arrived since Thursday, setting the stage for possible full-scale war.
The Bush administration has publicly denounced the Islamists who control most of southern Somalia as al-Qaida puppets, reinforcing a widespread belief that the United States tacitly supports Christian-ruled Ethiopia's intervention into the overwhelmingly Muslim country.
The outbreak of fighting has focused new attention on U.S. policy in the region, which Western diplomats and regional experts say has been riddled with inconsistencies and missteps. The experts say U.S. handling of Somalia and Ethiopia is a tale of flawed intelligence, inadequate U.S. government attention and overheated rhetoric, with a measure of domestic U.S. politics thrown in.
Earlier this year, Washington provided covert aid to an alliance of secular Somali warlords in a failed bid to prevent the Islamists from seizing Mogadishu, the capital. U.S. officials confirmed to McClatchy Newspapers that one recipient of the CIA payments was a leader of a Somali militia that killed 18 U.S. troops in 1993 in fighting in Mogadishu, which was portrayed in the film "Black Hawk Down."
Even powerful U.S. politicians have had a role in American policy surrounding the complex conflict. Dick Armey, the former majority leader in the GOP-run House of Representatives, has been lobbying for Ethiopia, congressional aides said. Last summer, Armey worked to block a vote on a bipartisan bill to cut U.S. security aid to Ethiopia if it failed to halt political repression. The Bush administration also opposed the bill.
The Bush administration says it's urging Ethiopia to show restraint and that it's working closely with European Union officials in trying to arrange a truce and negotiations.
But Western diplomats and regional experts said the United States is widely seen as approving of Ethiopia's intervention.
"The Americans are trying to get (Ethiopia) to do what they wanted the warlords to do, which is get the bad guys," said a senior Western diplomat, who monitors Somalia from Nairobi and requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "Of course that failed so spectacularly."
Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frasier, the chief U.S. spokeswoman on Africa, helped fuel the perception of U.S. support for Ethiopia by charging on Dec. 14 that the Union of Islamic Courts, as the Islamists call their alliance, "is now controlled by al Qaida cell individuals, East Africa al Qaida cell individuals."
The Courts' top layer comprises "extremists ... terrorists," she said.
Western diplomats, some U.S. intelligence officials and independent analysts dispute those allegations as exaggerated.
Among the most serious U.S. missteps in the run-up to the current fighting, analysts say, was the secret CIA payments to the secular warlords whose militias had controlled Mogadishu since the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers in 1995. Disclosure of the payments to men widely despised for years of lawlessness helped galvanize Somalis behind the Islamists, who captured Mogadishu in June and went on to overrun most of southern Somalia.
One recipient of the payments was Abdi Hasan "Qaybdid" Awale, a former top aide to Mohammad Farah Aideed, the late militia leader whose forces killed 18 U.S. troops in the Battle of Mogadishu in March 1993, said U.S. officials, who requested anonymity because the matter remains classified.
Awale, Aideed's self-styled "interior minister" during Aideed's confrontation with U.S. and U.N. forces, was a target of the raid that triggered the two-day street battle.
According to Western diplomats and analysts, there's ample evidence of U.S. sympathy for the Ethiopian intervention. Among the signs:
U.S. sponsorship of a Dec. 6 U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized, over the Islamists' opposition, the deployment of an African peacekeeping force but omitted a demand for the withdrawal of the estimated 8,000 Ethiopian troops.
A visit by Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last month for talks with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The Bush administration's failure to insist publicly on an Ethiopian withdrawal or to participate directly in efforts to negotiate a cease-fire and power-sharing agreement between the transitional government and the Islamic Courts.
"We (the United States) are now giving a yellow-slash-green light to Ethiopia's policy of containment by intervention," said John Pendergast, a former Clinton administration adviser on Africa who's now with the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in a tape issued in June, welcomed a conflict in Somalia.
But some U.S. officials and many analysts said the administration has greatly inflated al-Qaida's role there. The result, they said, has been a U.S. policy that has fixated on counterterrorism while spurning overtures for talks from moderates in the Islamist Courts movement, leaving them feeling isolated and strengthening radical elements.
"It seems to be that there is such a knee-jerk (American) reaction to the idea of anything that is Islamic," said Abdi Samatar, a professor at the University of Minnesota. "We are losing the hearts and minds of anyone who matters."
Regional experts say a major war in Somalia could allow al-Qaida to claim that Christians are trying to suppress another Muslim nation and use that as a basis to recruit fighters from the adjoining Gulf region. That could bring about the very al-Qaida beachhead in East Africa that the Bush administration has been striving to prevent.
The administration charges that Islamist Courts extremists are harboring three al-Qaida operatives who carried out the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and a 2002 suicide attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya.
And U.S. intelligence officials said that al-Qaida operatives are running some training camps in Somalia.
"But there is no reporting to indicate that al-Qaida is calling the shots in Somalia, or that the Islamic Courts and al-Qaida are working together on operations outside of Somalia," said a senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the intelligence is classified.
The Islamists and al-Qaida elements have a common interest in creating an Islamist state that would provide haven to Islamic extremists, "but it's hard to make more of it than that," the official said.
Western diplomats and experts said that many Courts leaders, like most Somalis, are moderates and fiercely nationalist. For that reason and because of the complex tangle of clan allegiances within the courts, it's premature to conclude that the Islamists will impose a repressive Taliban-style Islamic regime aligned with bin Laden, they said.
But experts said the hard-liners' influence is growing as the conflict intensifies.
The supreme Courts leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, is on the U.S. and international terrorist watch lists. However, he denies having al-Qaida links and hasn't been tied to any operations.
Observers are also watching the rise of a militant Courts faction called Hisb'ul Shabaab, or "Party of Youth."
Aden Hashi Ayro, a jihadist who trained in Afghanistan, is believed to be the group's leader.
A U.N. report last month said Ayro has received weapons and supplies from Eritrea. The report also alleged that Ayro sent approximately 720 Somali fighters to join the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah in this summer's war against Israel, although experts have cast doubt on that suggestion.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration deployed 1,500 troops in Djibouti, a tiny nation bordering Somalia, to pursue al-Qaida operatives.
But U.S. officials now say there are fewer terror cells than they first feared. The Djibouti task force's mission has shifted to civil affairs - drilling wells, building schools and promoting economic development to fight the poverty that breeds extremism.

Special correspondent Mahad Elmi in Mogadishu contributed to this report. Landay reported from Washington and Bengali from Nairobi, Kenya.

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