Ethiopian troops, with Washington's tacit approval, have routed the Islamists who seized power in Somalia last June. The official Government forged by the international community in 2004 can take power. Good news, surely?
As one of the few journalists to have visited Mogadishu recently, I fear it is not. Far from restoring stability to Somalia, this week's developments could well plunge that country back into the protracted anarchy from which it emerged only recently. What struck me most forcefully during a week in Mogadishu this month was the gulf between Washington's view of the so-called Union of Islamic Courts and that of the Somali people.
To Washington the Union is - or was - a new Taleban: al-Qaeda sympathisers who were turning Somalia into a haven for terrorists including those responsible for the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
That may or may not be true, but most Somalis I met welcomed the Union because it had banished the warlords who had reduced their country to mayhem during 15 years of civil war. For the first time in a generation people could walk the streets in safety. Gone were the ubiquitous checkpoints where the warlords' militias extorted and killed. Guns had been banned. Somalis who had fled the violence were returning from abroad.
The Union did reintroduce public executions, ban the narcotic qat and discourage Western music, films and dancing, but that seemed a small price to pay. Asked if he feared the Union would become a religious police, one educated, middle-class Somali who ran a humanitarian relief organisation replied: "Even if they do, they'd be far better than the warlords who were conducting slow genocide."
Most Somalis detested the official Government, which was created after two years of tortuous negotiations in Kenya between rival Somali factions but was stranded in the town of Baidoa until this week because it dared not return to Mogadishu.
The so-called Transitional Federal Government (TFG) contains some of the warlords that the Islamists drove out in June. It has also relied for its survival on thousands of troops from Ethiopia, Somalia's most bitter enemy, whose Christian Government feared the UIC would foment trouble among its own sizeable Muslim minority.
Washington backed the warlords in their losing battle against the Islamists last spring. It tacitly approved Ethiopia's military intervention to support the TFG. It has even been passing aerial surveillance reports to Addis Ababa, according to US news reports. Preoccupied with the spectre of Islamic terrorism, Washington is thus party to an attempt by a repressive regime in Ethiopia to replace a popular de facto government in Somalia with a widely reviled official one. It is a dangerous gamble.
The best - but least likely - outcome is that the TFG offers some sort of power-sharing deal to the leaders of Somalia's powerful Abgal and Habar Gidir clans. The Abgal clan may be tempted, especially as the TFG's Prime Minister, Ali Mohammed Gedi, is one of their own, but the Habr Gadir clan helped create the Union and regards the TFG with deep suspicion A more likely scenario is that the TFG fails to impose its authority and Somalia returns to the clan warfare that has plagued it since 1991. Shooting and looting have already started. Equally possibly, the Islamists may have beaten a tactical retreat before launching a long and bloody guerrilla war against the TFG and the Ethiopian troops that protect it.
The Union's capitulation this week has cost it support, but Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and other Union leaders interviewed by The Times did not seem the sort to melt quietly away. And there are plenty of jihadists from Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the Islamic world who are eager to open another front in their Holy War.
Some regional experts believe that Washington should have encouraged any regime that brought stability to Somalia, even an Islamic one.
Their fear now is that if Somalia is not already the terrorist breeding ground that Washington says it is, it will quickly become one if reduced once more to lawlessness.
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