NAIROBI, Kenya - The United States must do all it can to support peace and reconciliation in Somalia, but should allow Somalis to find their own solutions, the most senior U.S. diplomat for Africa said.
Jendayi Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, told The Associated Press Sunday that the U.S. administration would use its diplomatic and financial resources to support Somalia's government and prevent a slide back into chaos.
Ethiopian troops last week defeated a fundamentalist Islamic movement that controlled the country, and there is now a power vacuum.
On Sunday, gunmen attacked Ethiopian troops supporting the Somali government, witnesses said, in the second straight day of violence in the capital, Mogadishu. One Somali soldier was wounded, according to a Somali military official who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
Frazer said Somalia needs a peacekeeping force to help the government stabilize the country and start a reconciliation process to prevent the return of the warlords who drove out the last effective government in 1991 and then divided the country into clan-based fiefdoms.
"I think we are pushing uphill as an international community, as well as the Somali people themselves, to try to overcome their history," she said.
The African Union has begun planning for the peacekeepers and Uganda has promised at least 1,000 troops. Frazer has said she hopes the first troops will begin arriving in Mogadishu before the end of January.
The mission will be modeled on a peacekeeping force that recently concluded duty in Burundi. African troops there provided security for political leaders and key facilities while a new government took over the country. Like the AU mission in Burundi, a mission to Somalia could be switched to a United Nations operation if necessary, Frazer said.
"The concept, the task, the mission can be kept fairly limited, which is probably ideal," Frazer said. "I don't think the Somali people have a lot of tolerance for foreign forces."
A U.N. peacekeeping force including American troops met disaster in Somalia in 1993, when militiamen shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters and battled U.S. troops, killing 18. The U.S. left soon afterward and the U.N. scaled down.
"Some people would like the United States to lead on this issue," Frazer said. "I would prefer that we lead from behind, and what I mean by that is pushing the Somali people first, pushing the sub-region next and then mobilizing the resources of the international community."
Frazer said Somalia is important to the United States because of its strategic location in the Horn of Africa, where the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean. The U.S. also wants to make sure international terrorists do not take advantage of the chaos to establish a safe haven.
There already have been three terrorist attacks in the region. An al-Qaida cell blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and attacked the USS Cole in 2000 across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen. The same cell that destroyed the embassies stuck again in 2002, bombing a Kenyan hotel and attempting to shoot down an Israeli airliner.
Frazer has repeatedly accused the East Africa al-Qaida cell of infiltrating and taking over the Islamist movement in Somalia. The group's leadership denies having any links to the terror network.
Before the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia on Dec. 24, regional leaders were split over whether to support Somalia's transitional government or the Islamic movement. Now that the Islamic militia is scattered and its leaders on the run, Frazer said all governments have agreed that a peacekeeping force and a reconciliation process is the best way forward. She said she believes the Somali people are also ready for peace.
"There is certainly a war-weariness," Frazer said. "And I believe that is the point of leverage."
Somalia struggles with war's aftermath
KISMAYO, Somalia: Every Friday morning in this seaside town, the future of Somalia plays soccer on a bone- littered beach.
Boys dribble around animal carcasses and oil drums that have been dumped by the shore. Ships covered with rust lean into the sand. The palms sway, the seagulls squawk and a few girls in veils hang back, watching the action.
"This is all we know," said Mahmoud Abu Gur, 19, pointing to a dozen haphazard soccer games. "This."
The road ahead for Somalia begins in places like Kismayo, dusty, chaotic, forlorn wrecks of cities where the list of dire needs like food, water, shelter, a fire department, law, order — and hope — is so overwhelming that people just shake their heads and smile when asked where they would begin.
In just two weeks, the Somali political world has been turned upside down, bringing ambitious governance and reconstruction issues into focus for the first time in 16 years. The Islamist forces that ruled much of the country for the past six months are out. The transitional federal government, which had been considered totally feckless by those both at home and abroad, is in. The surprising reversal is because of thousands of Ethiopian troops still in Somalia who routed the Islamists after Ethiopian officials declared the growing movement a regional threat.
Kismayo is an old Arab port town of 700,000 people, Somalia's third most populous city, after Mogadishu, the capital, and Hargeisa, in the north. But town elders in all three places are struggling with the same questions: how to provide security; what to do with the remaining Islamists; how to determine the proper role for religion, which is an important theme in Somali society; and how to unify rival clans, rebuild infrastructure and live with the Ethiopians. Many Somalis say they are starting at less than zero.
"After nearly two decades of anarchy," said Abdi Artan Adan, a retired diplomat in Kismayo, "people just don't want to be ruled."
Ever since Somalia's central government collapsed in 1991, the country has been notorious for the staggering levels of firepower on the streets. The new government made disarmament its first step but despite meetings, pleas, deadlines and threats, officials have collected few weapons. In Mogadishu, hundreds of people rioted Saturday at the prospect of house-to-house searches. The local government there indefinitely postponed the issue.
That led Jendayi Frazer, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, to cancel a planned trip to Mogadishu on Sunday. She would have been the highest-ranking American official to set foot in Mogadishu since American troops left the country in 1994 after a troubled aid mission. But American officials said the security situation was too unstable.
In Kismayo, no weapons have been turned in. Many elders agreed that everyone would be better off once all guns were gone, but no one seems to want to volunteer theirs first.
"It's a custom for Somalis to attack someone who doesn't have weapons," said Sultan Abdi Rashid Dure, a leader of the Galjel subclan. "When I was young, we used knives."
With long, wrinkled fingers, Dure, 56, traced the web between disarmament, clans, revenge and anarchy. "During these years, every clan killed," he said. "A lot. Now there are so many feuds, so many scores to settle. We are all afraid that if we give up our weapons, other clans will take their revenge."
The Islamists, using Islam as a bridge, did a better job than any recent authority to unite warring clans. But their military was no match for the better-trained, better-equipped Ethiopian- led troops, and now that the Islamists are gone, many fear a return to clan mayhem.
Somalia has always been somewhat of a political paradox — it is one of the most homogeneous countries in Africa, with one language, Somali, and one religion, Sunni Islam, but at the same time is one of the most violently divided. Clan allegiances have always mattered.
Dahir Ali Barre, the leader of a small Kismayo political organization, said when he was a teenager in Mogadishu in the early 1970s, he did not know which clan he belonged to. It was not until 1974, when he was shipped off to a village in Somalia's barren interior as part of a national effort to foster cross-clan understanding, that Barre learned he was a Marehan. But when he returned to Kismayo in the mid-'90s after some years in the capital, the first thing he did was seek out the Marehan neighborhood, for protection. "After all those years of sophisticated culture," he said, "we've basically gone back to the bush."
The transitional government has theoretically addressed the clan issue by its so-called 4.5 formula, which allots equal representation to the four major clans and a smaller percentage for all the minor clans. The government was set up in 2004 with help from the United Nations and is supposed to rule until the next elections, proposed for 2009.
Somali officials said Monday they had captured a jungle hideout used by Islamic militants that is believed to be an Al Qaeda base, The Associated Press reported from Kismayo.
Ethiopian soldiers, tanks and warplanes were involved in the attack, a government military commander said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Somali officials said that the Islamic movement's main force is at Ras Kamboni, cut off from escape by sea by patrolling U.S. warships and across the Kenyan border by the Kenyan military.