December 12, 2008

Ethiopia pullout opens door for Somali Islamists

By Andrew Cawthorne | December 9, 2008
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NAIROBI (Reuters) - Unless U.S. ally Ethiopia is bluffing about a plan to withdraw soldiers from Somalia within weeks, it will usher in a probable power vacuum and a perilous new chapter in the Horn of Africa nation's bloody history.

The exit of Ethiopia's remaining 3,000 or so troops at the end of the year will leave the weak, Western-backed government exposed to Islamist insurgents already knocking on Mogadishu's door.
The government controls little more than its own bases in the capital and the parliamentary seat of Baidoa -- and even that with the help of Ethiopian soldiers.

The African Union has about 3,200 peacekeepers in Mogadishu, but they would be unable to resist an Islamist takeover even if it were in their mandate.

There is talk too, among regional diplomatic circles, that they would like to follow the Ethiopians out of Somalia fast.

And should the United Nations overcome its reluctance to intervene in Somalia, where a disastrous mission in the 1990s led to ignominious exit, it would take at least six months to get a peacekeeping force ready.

So exactly two years after the Ethiopians drove the Islamists out of Mogadishu, there appears little stopping their comeback in an about-turn mocking the efforts of the West to make President Abdullahi Yusuf's government work.

The Islamists' main obstacle is their own disunity.

Should the insurgents -- who already control large swathes of south and central Somalia -- take the war-shattered capital again at the New Year, they will not be the homogenous movement they were during a six-month rule in 2006.

This time, there are deep divisions, ranging from the militant al Shabaab movement, to moderate elements in the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) who support power-sharing with the government.

"The extremist al Shabaab Islamist group is best placed to take control of Mogadishu, but this is not a foregone conclusion," said David Shinn, a U.S. expert on the Horn of Africa at George Washington University.

While al Shabaab have spearheaded attacks this year to become the face of the insurgency, they lack popular support, and do not have enough fighters to rule on their own without alliances with Islamist movements, analysts say.

Al Shabaab's hardline ways -- such as strict imposition of sharia law, banning drinking or films, and the beheading of several suspected government collaborators -- sit uncomfortably with many among Somalia's traditionally moderate Muslims.

"LET THE CARDS FALL"

"If Ethiopia goes, the main rationale for Shabaab's jihad goes, and they will be isolated. Then the ICU and the pro-peace wing of the ARS would come to the fore," one diplomat said.

"Let the cards fall. There will be a bit of fighting and revenge-taking, then they will do the usual deal-making among themselves. There is no option now but to let the Somalis work it out. We should hope that a democratic Islamic state, like Malaysia, Singapore or Pakistan emerges. Why not?"

An obvious alternative would be chaos, feuding fiefdoms, and a further deterioration of the country that tops the index of failed states prepared by the Washington-based Fund for Peace.

Somalia's breakdown has already contributed to a surge of piracy that has brought Western navies rushing to protect the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's most important shipping lanes.

Some doubt Ethiopia will pull out.

There is conjecture too, among Somalis and experts, that Washington is pressing its ally to stay in for fear of a takeover by al Shabaab and others whom the United States see as al Qaeda proxies.

But the signs from Addis Ababa are that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is serious.

He is genuinely fed up with the financial cost of his Somali mission, the lack of progress by Yusuf and other squabbling leaders, and the absence of a serious, international effort to pacify Somalia, analysts say.

"Ethiopia's decision to withdraw its troops from Somalia is final and irreversible. Ethiopia serious and is not bluffing," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wahade Belay said.

Ethiopian officials do say, however, that logistics might delay a complete exit by a few days beyond the stated year-end deadline, meaning it would be completed in early January.

A pullback is not the end of Ethiopian involvement, though. It will keep troops on the border, ready to spring back in should there be a threat to its interests.

"The security stakes for Ethiopia are far too high for it to do anything else. Ethiopia is 'pulling out' but not 'pulling away' from Somalia," said another Somalia expert, Ken Menkhaus.

During the Islamist rule of 2006, and again now in Islamist-taken areas, Somalis have a nuanced view. They welcome the order and security the Islamists bring, but chafe under the imposition of strict religious rules.

Many are bracing for yet another period of instability in the seemingly incessant rounds of violence gripping the country since 1991. Just the last two years' fighting has killed about 10,000 civilians, made more than a million homeless, and left about three million hungry.

"I am afraid when Ethiopia withdraws, Somalis will just kill themselves," said Omar Muhudin Abudar, a 24-year-old Mogadishu student, expressing the general fear of the future. (Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu and Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa; Editing by Daniel Wallis)
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