Backlash against US limited, but threat remains

NAIROBI — A US air strike on Somalia this month sparked widespread condemnation and predictions it would both worsen violence inside the country and hurt US interests across east Africa.

But though the threat remains, the limited nature of the January 8 raid may have contained the backlash, analysts say.

Washington said the attack by an AC-130 plane firing a battery of cannons, America’s first overt action inside the chaotic country since a disastrous humanitarian mission ended in 1994, targeted only Al Qaeda suspects.

It rejected reports of civilian casualties and firmly denied any further raids.

“If it was a one-time event, I don’t think it will have a major impact but will disappear quickly if there is no more engagement in Somalia,” said David Shinn, a former US envoy in the region.

When defeated Islamists were pushed into a remote southern corner of Somalia by Ethiopian and Somali government forces, apparently forcing Al Qaeda agents among them to break cover, Washington jumped at the chance of a decisive hit. “The opportunity to do a short, sharp strike was at its prime — that is why the Americans went for that,” a Western diplomat said. “The strike threw a bit of fuel on the fire… [but] the Americans have just been able to get away with it.” The action provoked a chorus of condemnation from Europe, the United Nations and the Arab League. EU aid chief Louis Michel said it would worsen violence in Somalia.

Ethiopia’s enemy Eritrea, alleged to have backed the Islamists who ruled southern Somalia for six months, said the strike would “incur dangerous consequences”.

The Ethiopian and US action heightened fears of terrorist attacks in the region and Washington renewed travel warnings to its citizens. “What will happen is that the extremists and their supporters will at some stage no doubt look to strike back in retaliation,” said one Somalia expert who declined to be named.

Some Somalis say they were most angered by what diplomats assumed was tacit US approval for Ethiopian troops, tanks and warplanes to oust the Islamists. Somalis see traditionally Christian Ethiopia as their natural enemy.

Western military sources say the United States gave Ethiopia intelligence data to help its campaign against the Islamists.

“The Ethiopian occupation which the Americans are supporting will create hatred against the Americans,” said one Mogadishu resident who declined to be named.


‘Fury remains’


“The fury is still within the hearts and souls of the Somali people,” said Michael Weinstein, analyst with the Power and Interest News Report and professor at Purdue University.

The strike may also have discredited the interim government, already seen by many as a puppet of Ethiopia.

“It has weakened the credibility of the government … and has weakened the US position as an honest broker,” Weinstein said.

Washington believes hardline Somali Islamists for years harboured Al Qaeda members accused of bombing two US embassies and an Israeli-owned hotel in east Africa.

The strike missed its target of three top Al Qaeda suspects but killed up to 10 of their allies, US officials say.

Washington withdrew from Somalia after the disastrous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident, in which 18 US soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed. But it continued to play a covert role.

Washington was widely criticised last year for sending suitcases of cash to Mogadishu warlords who ran the capital in a series of violent fiefdoms but promised to catch “terrorists”.

That US support fuelled popular resentment which helped the Islamists evict the warlords in June.

Many analysts rule out predictions that the Islamist defeat and US intervention will spark an Iraq-style insurgency.

But a more potent fear is a return to the clan-based violence and anarchy that plagued Somalia for 15 years after dictator Mohammad Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.

“America should step back militarily and engage on the political side,” the Western diplomat said.

Many Somalis would prefer Washington stay out altogether.

“American involvement in terms of policy and military is a total disaster for Somalia … simply because it fosters the suspicion Muslims have against the campaign of President Bush,” Somali lawmaker Abdullah Haji Ali told Reuters.

“This will destroy any chance of peace in Somalia and the region.”  

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