Leading article: A conflict with dangerous regional ramifications


Somali government troops staged a triumphal entry into the capital, Mogadishu, yesterday and the Prime Minister promised to dedicate himself to solving the country's myriad problems through peaceful means. Leaders of the Islamic grouping that had held sway in the capital for six months fled in advance of their arrival. The official picture was one of flower-strewn streets, order joyfully restored, and the prospect of national unity and stability to come.

The reality was, and is, rather different. While many people appeared to welcome the troops - a not unreasonable response to the arrival of a conquering force - there was also gunfire and looting. Those who had supported the Islamic regime with arms changed out of their uniforms and into civilian clothes, the better to melt into the background. Their leaders meanwhile broadcast their intention to rejoin battle from the south.

There are many other reasons why the change of power in Mogadishu risks creating at least as many difficulties as it solves. The Union of Islamic Courts had succeeded in bringing law and order to the capital after 16 years of warlordism interspersed with anarchy. Its particular brand of sharia law was not the most refined, but it appeared - with a few exceptions - to be tolerated. If the new government cannot ensure security, a return to chaos will be inevitable.

The omens are not good. The troops that entered Mogadishu yesterday belong to the transitional government formed three years ago. Until now, though, this government has never been strong enough to establish itself in the capital, despite the moral support of the United Nations and the African Union. It remained holed up in the town of Baidoa and could only watch as the Union of Islamic Courts gained ground.

There is nothing about yesterday's advance that suggests this government is in any better position to take power and unify the country from the capital. It was facilitated only by the overt intervention of troops from neighbouring Ethiopia and under cover of Ethiopian air power. Somalia has fought two wars against Ethiopia within living memory. If there is one thing that might bring the disparate Somali clans together, it is the presence of Ethiopian forces on their territory. Sooner or later, new bloodshed would seem inevitable.

The most disturbing aspects of this week's developments, however, are the geographical and political ramifications. It is barely one week ago that we seemed to be looking at a civil war between the Union of Islamic Courts and an ineffectual transitional government that would be contained within Somalia's borders. A UN Security Council resolution providing for an African Union force to support the government was widely seen as impossible to realise. Then on 24 December, the Ethiopian government admitted what the Islamic Courts had long charged: that its troops were active in Somalia. Strikes on Mogadishu airport followed, and then a land offensive. Somalia may now have a national government, but it is one that holds power only at the behest of the rulers in Addis Ababa. The hand of the United States, which also fears a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Somalia, can also be detected behind Ethiopia's action.

In place of an internal conflict that could be contained within Somalia's borders, we must now contemplate a new war in another strategic region, at another frontier of the Christian and Muslim worlds. It is a war, moreover, in which the neighbours, the Arab world, and the United States all see themselves as having a stake. This makes a rapid UN solution unlikely. Unfortunately, it also suggests that the situation in Somalia could become a good deal worse before it gets any better.

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