U.S. senator, next head of Africa subcommittee in Senate, slams Bush policy on Somalia

The Associated Press
WASHINGTON: Returning from a trip to Africa, Sen. Russ Feingold faulted the Bush administration for what he called a failure to develop a policy on embattled Somalia but praised President George W. Bush's efforts to combat AIDS on the continent.
Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who will chair the Senate Foreign Relations African affairs subcommittee next year, visited Ethiopia and Kenya, neighboring countries to Somalia, during his weeklong trip. An Islamic militia has taken over much of Somalia, including the capital, Mogadishu, and the weak transitional government's prime minister said this week his troops were bracing for war.
"The stakes are very high for us," Feingold said in a telephone interview Tuesday, warning that the militants could have an impact not just in Somalia, but throughout the region. The United States says the Islamic movement has links to al-Qaida, which the Islamic leaders deny.
"So this is just the kind of situation that we should be paying real attention to, instead of only obsessing about Iraq," he said. "Our failure to have a policy in this area is a threat to the American people, and our government has a very serious responsibility to turn this around."
Islamic militants, operating under the umbrella of the Union of Islamic Courts, have expanded their zone of influence in Somalia.
Asked for comment Tuesday, the State Department referred to remarks made last week by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, in which she said the United States is working with all sides to prevent Somalia from becoming a haven for terrorists.
At a Senate hearing in July, Frazer rejected suggestions that Somalia is not a priority for the administration. "We're fully engaged," she said.
Feingold said the U.S. policy should be to try to get negotiations going between the current secular government, known as the transitional federal government, and Islamic Courts to bring about a coalition government in Somalia. The United States has supported such a dialogue, but Feingold argued it has done too little to bring one about.
In October, Feingold won passage of an amendment to a defense bill that requires the U.S. government to coordinate a comprehensive strategy for Somalia and the region.
In Minnesota, which has the nation's largest Somali community, U.S. policy toward Somalia is a huge concern, said Omar Jamal, executive director of the St. Paul-based Somali Justice Advocacy Center.
"Somalis feel that the administration hasn't done anything on the Somali issue," Jamal said. "The administration's main focus was the war on terror, and right in front of our eyes, Somalia is run over by Taliban-style extremists. The administration hasn't done squat."
Meanwhile, Feingold praised the impact that Bush's AIDS initiative has had on the countries he visited. The initiative, announced in 2003, targets 15 countries which are home to about half of the world's 39 million people who are HIV-positive.
"It's hard to ever describe this issue as good news, but I am proud of the effect that the president's program is having," Feingold said. "We received profuse thanks for the very significant funding increases that are going into it.
"It appears that both in both Ethiopia and Kenya, the government is fully behind the efforts, and sees the American bilateral aid as being one of the most important things."
Feingold said that while more needs to be done, the progress has been striking. He said he visited a slum in Kenya in 2002, where he witnessed a "pitiful" program to help people with AIDS.
"There was absolutely no money whatsoever for treatment," he said. "Now there is significant funding — not enough — but at least significant funding to treat people who already have AIDS."

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