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Somalia's ragtag Islamists are here to stay

Disturbing news from Somalia and Ethiopia, embroiled in the latest African war

By Rageh Omaar

The next African war has already begun, though you may not have heard of it, as the television cameras have yet to arrive. By the time they do begin to take pictures of the hungry and displaced, it will be too late to avoid another man-made disaster in the most impoverished corner of the world.

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The countries involved in this war are Somalia, where I come from, and Ethiopia, where many of my relatives now live. Last spring, after 14 years as the quintessential failed state, Somalia gave rise to a grass-roots Islamist movement that enjoys genuine support, much as the Taliban did when they came to power in Afghan istan during the mid-1990s. Suddenly, to the astonishment of people who had feared to cross from one side of Mogadishu to the other, a semblance of order returned to the capital.

This honeymoon between the people and a deeply conservative Islamist movement would have come to a natural end, but now it looks certain to be prolonged because of the response of neighbouring Ethiopia and its US ally. Aghast at the seizure of power by the Union of Islamic Courts, Washington called on Addis Ababa to act quickly and decisively against the UIC militia. Ethiopia first made threats, and then intervened directly, sending forces over the border last month and shelling a strategic town.

Washington and Addis Ababa described their enemy as a ragtag bunch of no-hopers who could be crushed easily. The Ethiopian forces, the argument went, would be welcomed as liberators. It was a calculation every bit as flawed as Israel's reading of Hezbollah's strengths before last summer's invasion of Lebanon.

As so often happens, this war will achieve exactly what it set out to avoid: in this case, entrenching an Islamist government by providing it with even more popular support and legitimacy. Most Somalis will come to see the UIC as a bulwark against foreign invaders.

The US had not uttered the word Somalia for almost a decade, save as a rhetorical warning of the dangers of failed states. Yet, in the past week, American diplomats in New York have been urging the UN Security Council to end the international arms embargo on Somalia so that Washington's allies among the country's warlords and the powerless interim government can be equip ped to fight beside Ethiopian troops against their own countrymen.

The great irony is that many of the leaders of the UIC are not anti-American at all. Several of them have lived and worked in the United States. Far from wanting to export ideology, they are focused on their domestic agenda. One of the main policies is a decree that properties seized by the warlords must be returned to their rightful owners. This has encouraged thousands of exiles to return to Mogadishu. But, with the military intervention by Ethiopia (which has a large and restive Muslim population ripe for political and ideological proselytising), the UIC's reluctance to meddle will undoubtedly change.

What does Ethiopia - a country of 75 million people that suffers chronic food shortages and one of the highest levels of HIV - gain from this? Nothing. But, like other leaders in his position, Prime Minister Zenawi may find a foray abroad will help to silence criticisms about undemocratic elections and political persecution.

Looking around a world shaped by the Bush administration's "war on terror", one wonders why Washington persists with failing policies. It is a question that the historian Barbara Tuchman considered in her book The March of Folly (1984). In it, she asked what compels governments to continue with calamitous misadventures such as Vietnam, Algeria and the First World War. It's a book worth rereading today.

Originally published in New Statesman, Dec 08, 2006

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