msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 1/9/2007 7:22:02 PM ET 2007-01-10T00:22:02

For the United States, Somalia is a blemish on America’s record with nation-building and a reminder of carnage and failure that occurred more than a decade ago.

Somalia has had no firm central government since President Siad Barre was ousted in 1991. Barre, a military dictator, was overthrown when clan-based warlords removed him and then turned on each other.

In 1992, U.S. forces entered the East African nation as part of a large U.N. relief operation to end famine affecting thousands, stop the clan fighting and attempt to quell the power of  warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed.

But the intervention only aggravated the fighting, and the next year, 18 U.S. servicemen were killed when Aideed's militiamen shot down two Black Hawk helicopters. Images of Somali gunmen dragging the Americans' bodies through the streets were broadcast worldwide, becoming an icon for opponents of U.S. involvement abroad and inspiring the book and film “Black Hawk Down.”

The gruesome situation, which also left hundreds of Somalis dead, prompted President Clinton to order the withdrawal of U.S. troops. He vowed to never deploy troops again unless there was a clear national interest.

Now, with radical Islamists’ interest in Somalia renewed, the U.S. has pledged $40 million in political, humanitarian and peacekeeping assistance to the nation of about 8.8 million people. The Horn of Africa country is in a strategic location, where the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean, and the U.S. wants to make sure international terrorists do not take advantage of Somalia’s chaos to establish safe haven.

In early 2006, when the Islamic Courts militant movement began to take control of Somalia, the U.S. offered monetary support to a group of warlords that opposed the militants. But by mid-year the Islamic Courts had gained control over much of the country, including the capital, Mogadishu.

U.S. officials then offered support to neighboring Ethiopia, which has a long history of conflict with Somalia, in an operation against the Islamic movement.

Ethiopian forces entered last month, and war between Somalia and Ethiopia broke out on Dec. 24, when Ethiopia launched airstrikes against the Islamists. Islamist fighters fled Mogadishu on Dec. 28.

Mastermind killed?
U.S. officials said after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that extremists with ties to al-Qaida operated a training camp at Ras Kamboni, on the southernmost tip of Somalia between the sea and the Kenyan border, and that al-Qaida members were believed to have visited it. The alleged mastermind of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, escaped to Ras Kamboni.

Defense officials said Tuesday they believed a U.S. airstrike on Monday killed Fazul.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly said the U.S. military is not assisting or advising Ethiopian or Somali forces.

NBC News' Robert Windrem, MSNBC.com's Elizabeth Chuck and MSNBC.com's Michael E. Ross contributed to this report.

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