'Go away US, we don't want you': Islamic fundamentalists could mobilise Somali discontent if the aid plan goes wrong, Richard Dowden reports from Mogadishu

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The Independent Online
THE GUNMEN are usually friendly. When you knock at the great steel doors which protect every home in Mogadishu, a man with a gun peers through a hole and, if you are a foreigner, lets you in. They greet you, and some smile. But at a mother-and-child clinic this week, the gunmen shouted: 'Go away Americans. We don't want you here.'

Telling them we were not Americans made no difference. They shouted: 'Americans, go away' again and waved their guns. Since most Somalis in Mogadishu say they welcome the Americans and since these gunmen were guarding a mother-and-baby clinic, this seemed excessive, but this clinic is run by Al Dawa al Islami, the Islamic aid agency. Al Dawa has its headquarters in Sudan and is known to have close links with Al Itahad, the fast growing Islamic fundamentalist movement in Somalia. They are known to oppose the American invasion, as they call it, and their leaders were unwilling to talk to journalists before discussing their plans.

Al Itahad, which means unity, is strong in the north-east, and its members are believed to have been responsible for the murder of UN aid workers in Bosasso this year. Their base is at the port of Merca, south of Mogadishu.

Abdullah Bakheil Ahmed is a softly spoken doctor from Sudan who runs four feeding centres in Mogadishu and two mother-and- baby clinics. He denies that Al Dawa receives any money from Sudan's Islamic fundamentalist government, but aid agencies working in Sudan say it is run by the government. Sudan's close links with Iran are causing concern among Sudan's neighbours, in particular Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Washington believes that Islamic fundamentalist organisations involved in kidnapping in Lebanon have established themselves in Sudan.

Al Itahad is not believed to be ready to mount any serious physical opposition to the US forces but, as the myriad political parties fight and fragment, the movement offers a clear ideology. If the US plan goes wrong, Al Itahad could provide a rallying point for disaffected Somalis.

The three US military jets which flew over Mogadishu on Monday may have spotted a string of military vehicles heading out of town. Both General Mohammed Farah Aideed and Ali Mahdi, the leaders of the two factions which dominate Mogadishu, have pledged to hand in their weapons, but scores of 'technicals', the gun wagons of the fighting factions, have been leaving as the factions try to prevent them being confiscated by the Americans.

Cartoons in the cyclostyled sheets which pass for newspapers showed people digging holes to hide their guns, and a jeep with an anti-tank gun mounted on the back which usually stands outside the residence of General Aideed, was driven away at dusk on Monday night. Three nights ago 10 lorries and trailers loaded with fuel drums arrived outside the house of Osman Hassan Ali Atto, one of Mogadishu's richest men and the man who has bankrolled General Aideed. They were said to have come from Merca, a port supposedly closed for months by fighting. They have been unloaded and stored in the compound around Mr Osman Atto's house.

Such trade has continued throughout the diabolical 13-month war which has destroyed Mogadishu and driven millions from their homes and land to starve. Most of it goes on behind the high walls and heavily guarded steel gates which protect every villa in the southern part of the city where, with generators, freezers, radio telephones, and stocks of food and videos, the rich of Mogadishu and western aid workers survive.

On the streets, the Americans will find a broken town, without power for more than a year, its streets filled by day with scrapyard vehicles - most without lights or windscreens - so overloaded with people that they scrape the ground. Economic activity is restricted to kiosks lining the main roads. Usually run by women, they sell tiny bags of soap, sugar, tea or coffee, single cigarettes and of course khat, while their ragged children accost any vehicle which slows with cigarettes or chewing gum. In the centre of town where some of the worst fighting has taken place, erstwhile grand monuments to Italian colonialism are now heaps of rubble.

If the US forces move out of town they will see sodden green fields being planted out by women with hoes, and be struck by the sight of herds of sleek cattle and camels attended by young boys who wave at any passer-by.

The ports stand empty, but down the coast from Mogadishu at Danade the MV Adventure, a Kenyan freighter, is moored about a mile offshore. In a scene reminiscent of Africa 150 years ago, small craft crowd its hull. By the shore some 300 men in four lines stretching out into the surf which sometimes engulfs them pass box after box and sack after sack from the little boats to porters on the shore. A group of porters kneel, heads on the sand, saying their midday prayer.

This is the emergency food supply of the International Red Cross which is trying to feed about a million people in and around the capital. Further up the shore, Sean Brennan, an Irish Red Cross worker, sits under a thorn tree supervising the operation. He said that the 3,000 tons on the Adventure should take about 10 days to unload. 'You can't hurry things here,' he said. The Red Cross is determined to maintain its own primitive supply lines, whatever the Americans do - not only to ensure they keep flowing, but also to maintain a political distance from the American operation.

Where will the US forces find the starving people they have come to save? Not until they reach Baidoa, 200 miles west of the capital where two factions are fighting for the town. The Somali Democratic Movement, which originally held the town, are trying to stop the forces of the United Somali Congress, which have moved out of Mogadishu to avoid surrendering their weaponry. At least 30 people have been killed in three days and the fighting prevented food aid reaching people starving in camps near the town.

(Photograph and map omitted)