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Ethiopia finds itself ensnared in Somalia

Four months after the nation declared its "war on terror" against an Islamic movement in Somalia, Ethiopia remains entangled in a situation that analysts are comparing to the U.S. experience in Iraq.
Somali Islamic insurgents fire on Ethiop
Somali Islamic insurgents fire on Ethiopian positions in Mogadishu's nothern neighbourhood, on Thursday.AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Four months after Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared his own "war on terror" against an Islamic movement in Somalia, Ethiopia remains entangled in a situation that analysts and critics are comparing to the U.S. experience in Iraq.

Though Meles proclaimed his military mission accomplished in January, thousands of Ethiopian troops remain in the Somali capital, where they have used attack helicopters, tanks and other heavy weapons in a bloody campaign against insurgents that in recent weeks has killed more than 1,000 people, mostly civilians, and forced half of the city's population to flee.

On Thursday, the Ethiopian-backed Somali prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, declared that three weeks of heavy fighting was over, a statement tempered by the mortar blasts that continued to boom in the distance, witnesses said.

Meanwhile, a political crisis seems to be worsening, as the Somali transitional government, steadfastly supported by the United States, faces a swell of criticism for ignoring concerns of the city's dominant Hawiye clan, whose militias form the core of the insurgency and who are motivated not by the ideology of jihad, but power.

"It's just exactly like the Americans in Iraq," said Beyene Petros, a member of the Ethiopian Parliament and an early critic of the invasion. "I don't see how this was a victory. It really was a futile exercise."

'Decentralized Guantanamo'
The United States, which had accused Somalia's Islamic Courts movement of being hijacked by extremist ideologues, followed Ethiopia's invasion with airstrikes aimed at three suspects in the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, along with certain Islamic Courts leaders accused of having terrorist ties.

Four months later, however, none of those targets has been killed or captured, and the U.S. airstrikes are confirmed to have killed only civilians, livestock and a smattering of Islamic fighters on the run who were never accused of any crime.

More than 200 FBI and CIA agents have set up camp in the Sheraton Hotel here in Ethiopia's capital and have been interrogating dozens of detainees -- including a U.S. citizen -- picked up in Somalia and held without charge and without attorneys in a secret prison somewhere in this city, according to Ethiopian and U.S. officials who say the interrogations are lawful.

U.S. and Ethiopian officials say they have netted valuable information from some of the 41 detainees, who are being brought before a court whose proceedings are closed to the public.

Others have been quietly released, however, and human rights groups are criticizing the joint operation as a kind of "decentralized Guantanamo" in the Horn of Africa .

Ethiopian officials declined to be interviewed on the subject of Somalia, and a general blackout of information about the war prevails in the capital. Opposition members of Parliament complain that they have not been informed how many Ethiopian soldiers have been killed, how much the war is costing per day or how the government is paying for it.

There is also a sense here that while the invasion served Meles's own domestic interests, Ethiopia was also doing a job on behalf of the United States and is being left with a financial and military mess.

Supporters of Meles are mostly playing down the trouble, even as they are scrambling behind the scenes to find a solution. Knife Abraham, a close adviser to the prime minister, described the situation in Mogadishu -- where the bodies of Ethiopian soldiers have been dragged through the streets -- as "a hiccup."

"The victory was swift and decisive," Abraham said. "Now Ethiopia wants to stabilize the situation and get out."

But it remains unclear how Ethiopia will manage to do that while preserving Somalia's fragile transitional government and preventing more violence.

"The military victory was not complemented by a political victory," said Medhane Tadesse, an occasional adviser to the Ethiopian government who initially supported the invasion. "Long-term stability in Somalia requires a long-term social strategy, but Ethiopia and the U.S. only had a military strategy."

Ideological or monetary motivation?
Privately, diplomats in the region say the main problem for Meles comes down to one man: the president of the Somali transitional government, Abdullahi Yusuf, who has always had close ties to Ethiopia. Although Yusuf promised an inclusive government, he has failed to satisfy key leaders of the Hawiye clan, the historic rivals of Yusuf's Darod clan and the main base of support for the ousted Islamic Courts movement.

While Yusuf and Meles have continued to wage what they call a war against "terrorists," experts and even officials close to Yusuf say the insurgency has been heavily motivated by Hawiye clan business interests rather than ideology.

Yusuf's chief of staff, Adam Hassan, accused Hawiye leaders of trying to "hoodwink" Somalis and foreign diplomats into believing that the Hawiye have been treated unfairly, so they can retain property and land they took over after the 1991 fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who was from Yusuf's Darod clan.

Hawiye leaders said Yusuf wants to assume control of a city they have in many ways administered, and profited from, for years. They said their skepticism of the government has been strengthened by the president, "who labels as 'terrorist' every person or clan who criticizes his policy and clan-style leadership," according to a document outlining their concerns to Ethiopian officials.

One diplomat closely involved in the reconciliation process said Yusuf has refused to meet with Hawiye elders.

In an attempt to breach that gap, Ethiopia has lately been negotiating directly with Hawiye leaders, while the Hawiye seem to be trying to untangle themselves from certain Islamic Courts figures in an attempt to polish their image. This month, the clan asked two of the more extreme Islamic leaders to leave Mogadishu, saying they were a liability.

While the extremist element was always a factor in the Islamic movement, the notion of waging a "war on terror" in Somalia was always an oversimplification of a more complex situation, said Tadesse, the adviser to the Ethiopian government .

The Islamic movement was diverse, made up of extremist military commanders vowing holy war against Ethiopia and moderate leaders, including one, Ibrahim Addow, who taught at American University and holds a U.S. passport.

It was also always fundamentally a Hawiye movement, and Somalis tend to be loyal to clan above all.

Ethiopia, U.S. made a mistake?
Ethiopia and the United States made a mistake, Tadesse and other critics say, by throwing their support entirely behind the transitional government in the name of fighting a terrorist threat that involved just a few individuals, and at the expense of alienating the Hawiye.

This month, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer flew to Somalia in a show of U.S. support for Yusuf's government, a move that further infuriated Hawiye leaders.

Frazer has expressed "concern" for civilians but has offered no public criticism of the transitional government or of Ethiopia for using attack helicopters and other heavy weapons against civilian neighborhoods that have been reduced to ruins.

In his news conference Thursday, the Somali prime minister, Gedi, invited more than 300,000 residents who have fled the city in recent weeks to return to the broken seaside capital, where certain neighborhoods have lately acquired new nicknames.

In an allusion to sectarian violence engulfing Baghdad, residents now call the north part of the city Shiite and the south Sunni.

Gedi said that most of the fighting had ended and that Ethiopian and Somali government troops were merely clearing out the remaining "pockets" of resistance.

But Mohamud Uluso, a prominent leader of a Hawiye sub-clan called the Ayr, said that despite Gedi's declaration, fighting will most likely continue.

"What is worrying for Somalis and the international community now is the possibility of what happened in Iraq," he said. "The fighting was under the control of the Hawiye leadership committee, but once that control disintegrates, then there will be underground leadership. You don't know who or where they are."

Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim in Mogadishu contributed to this report.