Guns mar Bush's message of hope

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'GOD'S WORK' is how President George Bush described the intervention by Unites States-led military forces to halt the famine and civil war in Somalia. It was a 'wonderful, wonderful mission of mercy, and I am just so very proud,' he said on the last day of his two-day visit yesterday to Somalia, at an orphanage caring for 720 malnourished children in the town of Baidoa.

Hours before Mr Bush had departed for Baidoa, however, came a taste of the complex task the 30,000-strong international forces face in bringing peace to Somalia. Rival militias engaged in a two-hour shelling duel on the northwestern outskirts of Mogadishu on Thursday night in the worst clashes since the marines came ashore on 9 December. Seventeen people were reported killed and 25 wounded in the battles, which continued yesterday.

The battle, between two sub-groups of the Hawiye clan, the Murosade and the Habr Gedir of the warlord General Mohammed Farah Aideed, was sparked indirectly by the US intervention. Since the marines' arrival, Gen Aideed and his main rival, Mohammed Ali Mahdi, have been forced to send their heavier weapons and 'technicals' - armed trucks - out of the capital. The Murosade militias, whom Gen Aideed's forces drove out of their traditional areas in April, have used the past two weeks to attempt a comeback. Mr Bush, on the last foreign trip of his presidency, has received a warm welcome from Somalis, most of whom regard the marines as their last hope to end the spiral of violence which has ruined the country. One shop in Mogadishu had huge red letters proclaiming, 'Happy New Year Mr Bush' and a number of vehicles had sketches of the President attached to their windshields. Everywhere he went, Mr Bush was met by groups of children singing 'Welcome Mr Bush,' although one little girl chanting away at an International Red Cross feeding centre at Afgooye asked, 'What is Mr Bush?'

The President used a moral argument to explain the decision to dispatch the intervention forces when he addressed sailors aboard the USS Tripoli, where he was based between helicopter-borne visits to the devastated mainland. 'This is a human suffering situation,' he said. 'It's right. It's God's work and you're doing it well.'

Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, following Desert Storm in the Gulf, has become the latest test of American power to contain local and regional crises in what Mr Bush likes to call the 'new world order'. Mr Bush refused to meet any of the warlords and said in a message to the Somali people: 'We cannot, and will not, impose political solutions on you. Instead, you must take charge of your own fate and come together to rebuild your country.'

US officials have described the trip as a morale boosting visit for the troops, and Mr Bush has urged the American forces 'to be very proud of this significantly new role'.

Yet so far in Somalia, that new role has had mixed results. US marines, together with elite troops from a host of other nations participating in Operation Restore Hope, have opened up roads to eight major towns. The towns will be used as centres to distribute food and medicines to the Somali interior. Aid agency officials report that looting has fallen dramatically and, for the first time, there is a chance to reach hungry Somalis in outlying areas where roads are mined.

But the potential for armed violence, the main cause of the famine, remains as Thursday night's shelling demonstrated. The failure of the US forces to disarm the gunmen and militias as soon as they arrived in Mogadishu was a lost opportunity, one that will be impossible to retrieve. The main militias, of Ali Mahdi and Gen Aideed, sent the bulk of their technicals into the bush or toward the Ethiopian border.

US troops in the town of Bale Dogle proudly showed Mr Bush, wearing Desert Storm camouflage, scores of machine-guns, anti-aircraft weapons, recoilless rifles and technicals captured from what many marines like to call 'the bad guys'. But because the former president, Siad Barre, who was ousted in January 1991, had built up a huge arsenal of modern weapons, supplied by Moscow until 1977 and then by the United States, Somalia is awash with guns.

'We hope that when they acknowledge the problem we are facing day to day, with all the weapons still around, powerful authorities like Mr Bush will order the marines to fully disarm the gunmen and collect the weapons,' said Hassan Scek Ibrahim, a lawyer and leader of the Somali Democratic Movement, political party of the Rawahein clan, who have borne the brunt of the famine.

Mr Bush's plan has been to secure the food aid routes and then begin withdrawing US troops, turning the operation over to a multinational United Nations peacekeeping force. Many Somalis and international aid agencies question how such a changeover would work.

(Photograph omitted)