WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) – Fearful that Islamist forces are transforming Somalia into a safe haven for al Qaeda, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is pushing a new UN Security Council resolution that some experts here believe could spark a wider war in the Horn of Africa.

The resolution would exempt a proposed African “peace support” force from a longstanding arms embargo on Somalia despite warnings by the powerful Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that it will oppose any deployment of foreign forces on behalf of the Ethiopia-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

“The draft resolution the U.S. intends to present to the UN Security Council … could trigger all-out war in Somalia and destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region by escalating the proxy conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea to dangerous new levels,” warned the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.


Other analysts said passage of a resolution at this time was certain to be taken as a serious provocation by the ICU, which gained control of most of Somalia after routing the forces of U.S.-backed warlords from the country last summer and which the U.S. accuses of harboring several perpetrators of suicide attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

“If you try to deploy a lightly armed African force into Mogadishu, you’re going to have a battle,” warned Ted Dagne, a Horn of Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service, who added that any deployment should be part of a larger peace initiative that would also require the withdrawal of what some observers believe are several thousand Ethiopian troops from Somalia.

“A negotiated settlement between the TFG and the ICU is key,” he added. “The ICU is there; they cannot be ignored. They seem to have popular support from the Somalis in the areas they control, and the one entity that the U.S. supports [the TFG] really doesn’t have control of anything beyond Baidowa,” its interim capital.

The proposed peacekeeping operation was originally put forward two years ago by the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a 20-year-old regional grouping, but the initiative has only been taken up by Washington in earnest since the ICU defeated the warlords and emerged as the dominant Indigenous force in Somalia last summer.

As drafted, the resolution would not exclude the participation in the peacekeeping force of neighboring states, including Ethiopia, Somalia’s traditional nemesis which, according to diplomatic sources, already has between 2,000 and 8,000 troops protecting the TFG and training its security forces in and around Baidowa.

“The U.S. is basically trying to legitimize the Ethiopians’ presence in Somalia as part of an effort to preserve the transitional government and prevent the ICU from taking over the whole country,” according to one diplomatic source who declined to be identified.

“The problem, however, is that this TFG enjoys very little legitimacy within Somalia and is increasingly seen by Somalis as an Ethiopian proxy,” according to this source. “So a UN Security Council resolution that authorizes a foreign deployment with Ethiopia in it will actually strengthen the ICU, which will be able to rally nationalist sentiment behind it. It may not even have to attack Baidowa; the TFG could just implode.”

Indeed, Washington’s gambit has spurred consternation at the United Nations, among U.S. allies in Europe and even within the administration, particularly the Pentagon, according to various sources.

In a paper circulated to ambassadors of the European Union, Africa specialists at the European Commission warned that deployment of an African Union/IGAD peacekeeping force that includes Ethiopia risked a major regional conflict, according to a Reuters report.

Ethiopia is not the only power that is intervening directly in Somalia at the moment. Eritrea has also sent special operations forces into the country on the side of the ICU, a move that the diplomatic source described as “opportunistic and a repeat of what happened in Somalia at the height of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war” between 1998 and 2000.

Indeed, a UN report released earlier in November identified 10 nations–five of which, including Ethiopia and Eritrea, are Somalia’s neighbors–that have defied the 1992 UN arms embargo by providing military equipment to one side or the other in the country.

Since last summer’s ICU victory, many analysts have called for a major international effort in support of peace talks between the ICU and the TFG. But the talks, which have taken place periodically in Khartoum and are next scheduled for Dec. 15, have made no real progress as hard-liners in both camps, aided by their foreign patrons, have appeared more intent in gearing up for war.

According to some analysts, the Bush administration’s own hard line against the ICU has contributed to the impasse. Most analysts said the State Department’s top Africa official, Assistant Secretary Jendayi Frazer, has long championed a hard line against the ICU. “She really believes these guys are all terrorists, and you can’t deal with them,” according to the diplomatic source.

But most regional experts say the situation is more complex and that Washington has nothing to lose by engaging the group.

“We should send a specialized team to Mogadishu to meet everyone they want to meet and take a good look around for a month or so,” said retired Ambassador David Shinn, an Africa specialist who represented Washington in Addis Ababa in the 1990s. “Then, you might get a dialogue meaningfully under way whereby legitimate U.S. concerns about terrorism can be dealt with.”

He further believes that greater international and U.S. support for the Khartoum talks appeared to be the best course for the moment. “The chances aren’t good that they will achieve any success,” he said, “but chances are almost overwhelming that any kind of peace operation will worsen the situation unless all the principal parties in Somalia agree that one is desirable.”