The Big Question: What's going on in Somalia, and is the Horn of Africa on the brink of war?

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The Independent Online

Why is this an issue now?

Because the UN security council unanimously adopted a resolution on Wednesday night providing for the dispatch of foreign peacekeepers to Somalia, which has triggered warnings that the move will spark all-out war and a regional conflagration. The peacekeepers were authorised to support the weak, unpopular transitional government which has international backing even though it only controls just one town in Somalia, Baidoa. The rest of the desperately poor Horn of Africa country, including the capital Mogadishu, is controlled by a loose coalition of Islamists known as the Union of Islamic Courts, whose fighters have swept across the country since June.

Is that a problem then?

The Americans and their Ethiopian allies think so because of their fear that al-Qa'ida is gaining a foothold in Somalia which had been in the grip of warlords since 1991, following the overthrow of the Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. Washington says Somalia is a haven for those who carried out the US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania. The transitional government, which was formed two years ago under UN auspices, says it has proof that Islamic radicals from such places as Yemen and Chechnya have been pouring into the country to fight on the side of the Islamic courts.

But the Islamic courts - a purely Somali movement - do include many moderates and have bolstered their popularity by establishing law and order in the regions of southern Somalia which they now control. (The hardliners have shut down some cinemas and told radio stations not to play foreign music.)

The UN itself further poured fuel on the fire when a report by an expert panel claimed that 720 fighters from the Islamic courts had fought alongside Hizbollah during the Lebanon war last summer. The same report also accused Iran of attempting to buy uranium from the Islamists in return for weapons. The report named 11 countries that had violated an arms embargo in force since 1992 by sending weapons to one side or the other. However some of these claims seemed far-fetched to say the least. It was unusual for a UN report, whose conclusions are usually authoritative, to be queried by experts as this one was. But the most dangerous development has been the intervention of outside forces in Somalia as the Islamic courts have gained territory.

Who's involved in the conflict?

Mainly Ethiopia and Eritrea so far. Ethiopia, a largely Christian country which is terrified of an Islamist state on its border, is reported to have deployed up to 8,000 troops in Somalia in defence of the transitional government. The Ethiopian government denies that troops are present and only admits to military advisers. However witnesses last month described the killing of six Ethiopian soldiers and wounding of 20 in a gun battle after Islamic fighters opened fire on a convoy of 80 trucks heading to Baidoa. Eritrea, which fought a bitter 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia, is believed to have a smaller number of troops supporting the Islamic courts.

How did the UN security council get involved?

The security council is supporting a peace process that is supposed to lead to a political settlement as a result of talks between the transitional government and the Islamists - which have so far gone precisely nowhere.

The US has been pressing for the UN partially to lift the arms embargo on the ground that the military expansion by the Islamic courts had created the need for a regional force to stabilise the situation inside the country. Resolution 1725 adopted on Wednesday authorised a regional force of 8,000 to protect the transitional government. It urged the Islamic courts to stop any further military expansion and carry on with the peace talks. It also specified that "those states that border Somalia would not deploy troops " to that country - thereby ensuring that neither Ethiopia nor Eritrea would be part of the peacekeeping force.

However it did not call on the foreign forces believed to be inside the country to pull out. The resolution threatened UN action against those who block peace efforts or attempt to overthrow the government, which could include targeted sanctions.

Britain, like the US a permanent member of the security council, voted in favour but did not join the US in co-sponsoring the resolution amid concerns that the Islamists would see the authorisation of peacekeepers as a provocation and intensify the conflict. Those concerns are shared by some members of the East African group Igad, which is sponsoring the Somalia peace process.

What has been the reaction to the UN decision?

Delight, as you might expect, in Baidoa where the transitional government is based. The Islamic courts were predictably furious. Ethiopia said that the peacekeeping force should have been authorised two years ago, when it was originally proposed, while Eritrea complained that the move was "an attack on the Somali people". The US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, dismissed accusations that the foreign peacekeepers - expected to come from Uganda and possibly Sudan - would inflame tensions further. He said that the UN was always being accused of not acting in time, and that this is an opportunity to have a regional force in place to prevent the situation from getting worse.

Is there a danger of a wider war?

Very much so, and possibly as soon as the rainy season ends later this month. A likely scenario that has given diplomats the jitters is that the Islamic courts fighters move on Baidoa, which Ethiopia would take as a signal to invade in support of the transitional government and to prevent the Islamists from destabilising parts of Ethiopia. And behind Ethiopia stands America - although in the light of the 1993 US debacle in Somalia it can be safely assumed that no American troops will ever head back to Mogadishu.

The Horn of Africa has long been a cauldron of clan warfare and proxy wars, and nobody wants a return to the kind of conflict seen in 1977-78 between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Ethiopian Ogaden region. The last thing the Somali people need is more outside intervention.

It is hoped, however, that instead of deepening the conflict, the UN move will heighten the political pressure on both sides in Somalia to reach a political settlement, as it will take many months before any foreign peacekeepers can be deployed. But diplomats admit that there is a question mark hanging over the continued international recognition of the transitional government.

Should peacekeeping forces intervene in Somalia?

Yes...

* The Somalis have known nothing but war, drought and famine for decades. The peace they deserve can only be imposed from outside

* Somalia could be a hot-bed of international terror unless foreign troops intervene

* African peacekeepers should be sent in as soon as possible to stop the conflict spreading and engulfing the region

No...

* Foreign intervention has, if anything, made Somalia's problems worse in the past rather than solving them

* The transitional government is deeply unpopular and deserves to be ousted by its Islamist rivals without external involvement

* It will take too long for peacekeepers to be deployed, so they will not be able to prevent the conflict from escalating

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