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The Islamists were the one hope for Somalia

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My colleague Rosemary Righter wrote last week that the defeat of Somalia’s Islamic courts by Ethiopian forces was the “first piece of potentially good news in two devastating decades”.

As one of the few journalists who has visited Mogadishu recently, I beg to differ. The good news came in June. That is when the courts routed the warlords who had turned Somalia into the world’s most anarchic state during a 15-year civil war that left a million dead.

I am no apologist for the courts. Their leadership included extremists with dangerous intentions and connections. But for six months they achieved the near-impossible feat of restoring order to a country that appeared ungovernable.

This was not done by “suppressing, with draconian punishments, what remained of personal freedoms” — unless you count banning guns and the narcotic qat, which rendered half Somalia’s menfolk senseless. The courts were less repressive than our Saudi Arabian friends. They publicly executed two murderers (a fraction of the 24 executions in Texas last year), and discouraged Western dancing, music and films, but at least people could walk the streets without being robbed or killed. That trumps most other considerations. Ask any Iraqi.

The Islamists have now been replaced — with Washington’s connivance — by a weak, fragile Government that was created long before the courts won power, that includes the very warlords they defeated and relies for survival on Somalia’s worst enemy.

For the sake of the long-suffering Somali people I hope it can impose its authority. But Washington has taken a big gamble, and nobody should be surprised if the warlords are soon plundering Somalia again or the Islamists are waging guerrilla war.

The Government’s appeal for Somalis to hand in their vast arsenal of guns has flopped. The courts’ militiamen have mostly melted back into the population, much as Saddam’s army did after the US invasion of Iraq. Mogadishu’s powerful Hawiye clan regards with deep suspicion a Government led by a Darod, President Abdullahi Yusuf. An African Union peacekeeping force is far off and Somalis will not tolerate the presence of troops from (“Christian”) Ethiopia for long.

Washington backed military intervention by Ethiopia’s unsavoury regime because it regarded the courts as a new Taleban, and accused them of harbouring al-Qaeda terrorists. It would surely have done better to try engaging the courts.

The US has a record of confronting Islamic movements. It backed Israel’s disastrous war against Hezbollah last summer. It never accepted the Palestinians’ election of a Hamas Government. It cold-shouldered Iran even when the relatively moderate Mohammed Khatami was President. In each case it succeeded only in boosting the extremists.

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