Somali strikes raise questions: Voices are being raised against Washington's continued involvement, writes Rupert Cornwell

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THE television images last weekend of the raids on Mogadishu have offered the most spectacular display of US firepower since the Gulf war. What little criticism has emerged has thus far been muted. But worries are simmering over both Washington's prominent role in the attacks, and their consequence for future UN peace missions.

If Somalia, some wonder, then why not Bosnia? Others in Washington, though, ask a different question of US-led punitive strikes against Mohamed Farah Aideed, the Somali warlord: could it not lead to another bloody and open-ended US military involvement overseas?

For President Bill Clinton, there are no public doubts. The use of US bombs and bullets can help dispel the impression of an administration spineless in matters of foreign policy. Officials hailed the action, and the attempt to capture Gen Aideed, as a 'defining moment' for the United Nations, proving it had the muscle and determination to respond when challenged. It is, moreover, entirely consonant with the doctrine set out by Mr Clinton in his inaugural address, that the United States was ready to use force when 'the will and conscience of the international community is defied'.

A senior US defence official said yesterday that Washington was sending more helicopters and would continue air strikes as required against Gen Aideed.

But such language does not mask the transformed reality of developments in Somalia. What began as 'Operation Restore Hope' when a lame-duck President Bush dispatched 26,000 troops to superintend relief supplies for a starving population, has become open warfare between the UN and local leaders.

At least until this weekend, US public opinion had assumed that Washington's main involvement had been brought to a close with the ceremony on the White House lawn on 4 May to greet returning US personnel, as command on the ground informally passed from the United States to the UN. In fact, 4,200 American troops are still in the country, with every possibility they may soon be reinforced by 2,200 Marines on the way from the Gulf to the Horn of Africa.

The humanitarian and idealistic image of the original intervention has been replaced by one of bloodletting and reprisal: first, of 23 Pakistani UN soldiers being killed in an ambush; and then of other Pakistanis opening fire on Somalis demonstrating against the UN presence. 'I thought we were getting out,' the Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole, said on Sunday: 'The American people aren't going to support this much longer.'

The force and swiftness of the response in Somalia stands in stark contrast with the UN's relative passivity in the face of far worse atrocities in Bosnia. Only when the opposition is as ill- equipped and disorganised as the Somali clans, the lesson seems, is the UN capable of agreeing to act.