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US leads world drive to oust Somalia terrorists

Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Craig Whitlock, Uganda

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THE heart of the Obama administration's strategy for fighting al-Qaeda militants in Somalia can be found next to a cow pasture in Uganda, 1600 kilometres from the front lines.

Under the gaze of American instructors, gangly Ugandan recruits are taught to carry rifles, dodge roadside bombs and avoid shooting each other by accident. In one obstacle course dubbed ''Little Mogadishu,'' the Ugandans learn the basics of urban warfare as they patrol a mock city block of tumble-down buildings and rusty shipping containers designed to resemble the dangerous Somali capital.

The number of recruits graduating from this boot camp - built with US taxpayer money and staffed by US State Department contractors - has increased in recent months.

The current class of 3500 Ugandan soldiers, the biggest since the camp opened five years ago, is preparing to deploy to Somalia to join a growing international force composed entirely of African troops, but largely financed by Washington.

After two decades of failed efforts, the US government and its allies in East Africa say the interventionist strategy is slowly bolstering security in war-torn and famine-stricken Somalia, long considered the most ungovernable country in the world. The European Union has also trained 603 Somalian soldiers in urban combat skills in preparation for deployment back to Somalia to maintain peace and order.

Ever since it plunged into chaos in the 1990s, Somalia has destabilised the region, serving as a hub for Islamic extremists and pirates who plunder some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

US officials have long worried that al-Qaeda leaders will seek to rebuild their global operations in Somalia and nearby Yemen.The US-backed force, which is officially led by the African Union and endorsed by the United Nations, began operations in Somalia in 2007. For years, it struggled to fill its ranks, overcome a lack of equipment and win support among Somalis.

The African Union pays troops about $1000 a month to serve in Somalia - five times the salary of enlisted Ugandan soldiers.

Since late last year these troops have chased al-Shabab, the Somali militia affiliated with al-Qaeda, out of Mogadishu and solidified control of the capital. In February, the African Union announced plans to expand the force from 12,000 to 18,000, and is preparing to deploy troops to sSomalia for the first time.

About three-quarters of the force - mostly Ugandans, but also soldiers from Burundi, Djibouti and Sierra Leone - will have been trained by US contractors. US military trainers are playing a supporting role, offering specialised instruction including combat medicine and bomb detection.

''If you look at all of this and say, 'Is it worth it?' '' said Lieutenant-Colonel Luis Perozo, the defence attache at the US Embassy in Kampala, ''I would say, all you need to do is look at what's going on in Mogadishu.''

The boot camp, known as the Singo Training School, is operated by the Ugandan military, but the instruction is overseen by MPRI Inc, a subsidiary of L-3 Communications, one of four State Department contractors that are training African troops for Somalia.

Between 12 and 24 MPRI instructors are posted to the camp to run the 10-week training course.

Since 2007, the US government has contributed about $US550 million ($A547 million) to train, equip and subsidise the African Union troops in Somalia. Washington is relying on proxy forces because Somalia has been essentially off-limits to US ground troops since 1993, when Somali fighters shot down two military helicopters and killed 18 Americans in the ''Black Hawk Down'' debacle.

''They're a very professional army,'' said Major Albert Conley, deputy chief of the office of security co-operation for the US military in Uganda. ''I've never had a discussion on Clausewitzian theory with an African military officer before, but I have here.''


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