US operation in Somalia short on hope

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The Independent Online
THREE WEEKS after United States marines spearheaded international military intervention in Somalia to secure the safety of relief operations, Operation Restore Hope has lagged behind the expectations of many Somalis that foreign troops would re-establish peace.

The gap between the hopes of Somali civilians for overall disarmament and peace and Washington's aims in the intervention by 20,000 troops was strikingly evident during a 100-mile journey late last week by a 90-vehicle convoy of American marines from the central city of Baidoa to the isolated southern town of Bardera.

Before the convoy left Baidoa early on Christmas Eve, the marines had to disarm three 'technicals' - trucks armed with anti- aircraft guns - discovered in a compound near the US command post at the airport. Sniper fire prompted the action by the marines, who supposedly had 'secured' the area eight days earlier.

While the haul might have given cheer to those who advocate a more aggressive stance by the international forces on disarmament, the fact that the 'technicals' were so close to the US base was a cause for concern.

The United Nations Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in a report to the Security Council on 22 December, called for a wider and longer involvement of US troops in Somalia, including disarmament of the warlords and armed gangs. US officials have said American troops would confiscate weapons only in the areas they control or ones that they felt posed a direct threat.

In Mogadishu, the Somali capital, owners of weapons confiscated by marine foot patrols have been able to turn up later at the marine base at the port and retrieve their guns.

When the convoy left Baidoa, bystanders cheered the massive amphibious assault vehicles and small tanks, which Somalis often call 'big technicals'. Advi Mohammed, 28, said: 'If the marines can go to Bardera, that means we can all go.'

During the 10-hour drive to Bardera, the Americans put on an impressive show of military power. When they passed through a village or small town, F-18 fighter jets and Cobra attack helicopters raced overhead. 'We are afraid of them because we have never seen them before,' said one elderly woman in a field of sorghum north of Bardera. 'We have been told they are here to ensure peace.'

Adbi Hassan Aden, 60, a father of eight, said: 'It's never been so bad here because of the terrible things the Somalis have done to this country. The Americans have the power to bring peace. If they leave, only Allah knows what will happen.'

The feeling is shared by international aid workers, many of whom initially were sceptical of the US- led intervention. 'The best thing the Americans can do is create an atmosphere of peace,' said James Fennell of Care International in Bardera. 'If there is just an environment of peace, then there is hope.'

Mr Fennel and others, such as Robert Oakley, the special US ambassador to Somalia, argue that such an 'atmosphere of peace' could allow unarmed political forces - intellectuals, clan elders, and women's groups - to emerge to lead Somalia towards political reconciliation.

Many Somalis take a more cynical view, arguing that the armed anarchy has become the country's political and economic culture, and that the gunmen have hidden their guns and 'technicals' waiting for the day when the Americans, or a subsequent UN peace- keeping force, leave.

'Most of these gunmen hid their weapons before the Americans came in,' said Abdi Mohammed Aden, a supervisor at a feeding centre in Bardera. 'If the Americans leave soon, the story of stealing and looting will return.'

The stated role of the US soldiers, to defend food convoys and open aid lines at the same time as avoiding becoming embroiled in police operations, also confuses many Somalis. 'You mean if two Somalis start fighting the marines will not intervene to stop them?' asked one young man near the Bardera central market. When told that was the case, he said: 'That is very bad. But they will stop Somalis from taking sacks of food?' He walked away shaking his head.