Somalia's Islamic Courts have vowed to fight African peacekeepers deployed in the country after the UN Security Council voted to send 8,000 troops to the war-torn state in the Horn of Africa.
The Courts, which control vast swaths of southern Somalia, claimed the resolution would "add fuel to the fire", likening the move to a "foreign invasion". The country's fragile transitional government, which controls one small town, Baidoa, and little else, welcomed the move.
The resolution was passed unanimously, but the United States, which proposed the resolution, failed to persuade the UK to co-sponsor it. John Bolton, the outgoing US ambassador to the UN, said it would help to bring stability to Somalia. "The other option is that the instability we have seen in Somalia for over 15 years would spread to the region," he said. "I think the choice of doing nothing is really not a choice at all." That argument, analysts pointed out, was also used to justify the invasion of Iraq three years ago.
"American diplomacy has not helped," said Matt Brydon, an independent Nairobi-based analyst on Somalia. "Some of the statements, particularly out of New York, made it clear that they are on the side of the transitional government."
The US believes that Somalia is a "safe haven" for suspected terrorists with links to al-Qa'ida. The east African country, which has been without a central government since 1991, is seen as a key part in the US's global "war on terror". Sheikh Hassan Aweys, the Islamic courts' leader, is on the US State Department's terrorism watchlist. The courts came to power in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, in June after an uprising against US-backed warlords.
One Western diplomat involved in the negotiations accused the US of deliberately rushing through the resolution for their own purposes, not those of the Somali people. "It is not the smartest thing ever to have been done," he said. "They are looking to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But even if they do get their six or so 'high-value' terror targets they will pay for it in frankly hundreds of people being converted to the cause."
The diplomat also doubted whether troops could be deployed. "It is logistically impossible and it can't be funded, so why do it?" he said. "The political message is damaging and the timing is extremely bad with the Khartoum talks coming up next week."
Peace talks between the transitional government and the Courts were to restart in the Sudanese capital next week. The third round of talks collapsed last month after the two sides failed to even step on to the same hotel floor, let alone meet in a room. They were to be restarted next week but those in the negotiations are pessimistic.
It is still unclear who will fund the proposed peacekeeping force. The European Union said last week that it would not fund any troops, and the African Union itself is already struggling to fund a force in the Sudanese region of Darfur. Mr Brydon said: "It will be interesting if the US is going to put its money where its mouth is."
The text was severely watered down from its original form four months ago. Paragraphs which would have allowed Ethiopia to form part of the peacekeeping force and to allow a lifting of the arms embargo were dropped.
Mr Brydon said there was "relief" among diplomats in the region that the language had changed. "On the downside," he added, "the context in which this was agreed and its origins mean that the Courts see it as a hostile act, one that favours the government. They have already made it clear how they feel and that is no surprise."
As well as committing 8,000 African troops, the resolution also authorised a partial lifting of Somalia's arms embargo to allow the force to bring in weapons and to train a local security force.
Ethiopia has already admitted sending several hundred "military trainers" to Baidoa to help protect the government. But the UN believes up to 8,000 Ethiopian troops are already there, and the largely Christian country, which fears an Islamic state on its borders, has vowed to "crush" the Islamists if they attack Baidoa.
On their part, the Courts have promised to wage a "jihadi war" on Ethiopia and have also received support from Ethiopia's sworn enemy, Eritrea.
The biggest surprise so far has been that war has not already broken out. There have been reports of sporadic gunfights between suspected Ethiopian forces and Islamists, but so far no side has been prepared to make the first move. A longer than expected rainy season, which has left up to one million Somalis homeless by floods, has also had an impact. But extremist elements in the courts are already believed to be planning a pre-emptive "insurgency-style" strike on Baidoa, and diplomats believe that the Ethiopians may be prepared to launch air strikes on Mogadishu's port and airport to cut off much of the Courts' funding.
A Western diplomat said: "If the government is attacked by the courts, the Ethiopians will come in saying they are defending the legitimate government. But they will underestimate the impact. There will be a groundswell of support in the wider Somali diaspora and the Muslim world."Reuse content