NAIROBI (Reuters) - Under fire at home for costly military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government has managed to achieve a major policy goal in strategic Somalia without firing a shot -- thanks to Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian military, one of the continent's strongest, decisively routed militant Islamists both Washington and Addis Ababa viewed as a risk to their interests in Africa and beyond.
Ethiopia's patience ran out when the Islamists were on the verge of over-running Somalia's interim government. With what diplomats in the region assume was tacit U.S. blessing, its tanks, jets and troops overwhelmed the Islamists in two weeks.
"Washington encouraged Addis Ababa to go ahead. They provided the same sort of diplomatic cover they did for Israel going into Lebanon last summer, and for similar reasons -- to keep a foothold in the region," said analyst Michael Weinstein.
"Ordinary Americans are fed up with foreign interventions. So what's happened in Somalia is now going to be a preferred strategy -- using allies in the region as their catapult," said Weinstein, a politics professor at Indiana's Purdue University.
Western military sources say the United States gave Ethiopia intelligence and surveillance help to accelerate its victory.
Both Washington and Addis Ababa had portrayed the Islamists as linked to and even run by al Qaeda, putting Somalia firmly on the map of the U.S.-led global "war on terror"
Yet President George W. Bush, haunted by such moments as his premature declaration of victory in Iraq in 2003, and his Africa policy-makers are unlikely to be crowing victory quickly.
Some analysts predict the Islamists, who fled rather than take heavy casualties, could regroup and fight an Iraq-style insurgency from remote corners of Somalia, or carry out bomb attacks elsewhere in east Africa.
"The parallels with Iraq are unsettling," said Nairobi-based Somalia expert Matt Bryden.
There is no guarantee of peace and harmony in Somalia now that six months of Islamist sharia rule are over.
Indeed, the rapid return of warlords to Mogadishu shows how easily it could slide back into the anarchy and chaos it has suffered since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.
"The Americans have learned enough in Somalia not to run up a 'mission accomplished' banner," Bryden said. "There probably is great relief in Washington ... The Ethiopian offensive was successful, civilian casualties were not too many. But there is no room for complacency."
A disastrous attempt by U.S. forces to pacify Somalia in the early 1990s began with marines crawling up the beaches of Mogadishu in full combat gear, only to find a phalanx of waiting Western journalists rather than a hostile army.
It ended with a humiliating withdrawal after Somali militias shot down two U.S. helicopters, killed 18 soldiers and dragged their bodies through the streets.
"...the (American) public would not have tolerated an overt intervention again," a European diplomat said. "It's worked out ok for the Americans after the mess they first made."
Early last year, Washington was vilified in east African diplomatic circles for secretly sending money to Mogadishu warlords who promised to catch "terrorists."
That fueled popular resentment against the warlords, who ran Mogadishu via checkpoints and extortion, and gave the Islamists a perfect rallying cry to rise up and take the city.
So a chastened Washington came full circle -- from firing the shots in Somalia more than a decade ago, to manipulating events behind the scenes in the two-week war just ended.
The U.S. challenge now is to help the Somali government broaden its clan base and popular support to become a truly national authority once Ethiopia withdraws its forces, Somali experts say.
"All Somalis have a role to play in the future of Somalia, except those who are committed to terrorism and violence," Michael Ranneberger, U.S. ambassador for Kenya and Somalia, said in a statement. "Warlordism and clannism have no role to play in the future of a modern Somali state."
The Somali government could cement its ties with the United States by handing over three top terrorism suspects the U.S. believes are hiding in Somalia. U.S. officials tried with no success to persuade the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) to give up the three -- wanted for 1998 bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania -- during its short-lived rule.
"The Somali government is going to need all the help it can get," Weinstein said. "So of course it would be useful to portray itself as a partner in the war on terror."
Unknown gunmen shot at Kenyan security helicopter from Somalia, say police
GARISSA, Kenya: Unknown gunmen shot at a Kenyan security helicopter patrolling near the border with Somalia on Wednesday, a police report seen by The Associated Press said.
The helicopter was flying above the southeastern Kenyan border town of Hulugho, the report said. It did not say if the aircraft was damaged but said gunmen fired smalls arms from the region of Ras Kamboni, at Somalia's southernmost tip. It did not give further details.
In recent days, Kenya has beefed up patrols along its 675-kilometer (400-mile) border with Somalia since troops of Somalia's transitional government, backed by Ethiopian forces, routed Islamic militiamen who had controlled most of southern Somalia, including the capital Mogadishu.
Kenya sent extra troops and tanks to its border with Somalia on Wednesday to keep out Islamic militants fleeing the Somali government and Ethiopian forces.
On Tuesday, four Ethiopian helicopters apparently mistook a Kenyan border post at Harehare for the Somali town of Dhobley and fired rockets at several small buildings, a security officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.