NAIROBI, Kenya – For the workmen racing to spruce up a bullet-studded police garage in time for a critical peace summit beginning today in Somalia, the work got a little tougher last week when insurgents launched mortars at the site.
The message was as clear as ever: Somalia’s transitional government is in trouble.
Diplomats say the conference on political reconciliation may be the government’s last chance to hold onto power against a growing Islamist insurgency and with one of its most powerful backers, the Bush administration, perhaps rethinking the military operation that brought the regime to power six months ago.
Since Ethiopian troops, supported by U.S. training and intelligence, ousted an Islamist regime from the capital, Mogadishu, the government has been unable to control the city. Somali and Ethiopian forces face near-daily mortar attacks and assassination attempts by insurgents linked to the Islamists, who vowed on Friday to disrupt the summit.
Public confidence in the government has plummeted further as security forces mount an offensive in insurgent neighborhoods, lobbing grenades into populated areas such as the busy Bakara marketplace. More than 50 people have been killed in the last two weeks, according to local hospitals, most of them civilians. Some eyewitnesses described the government strikes as indiscriminate.
The Bush administration linked the Islamist regime, known as the Council of Islamic Courts, to al-Qaida and said that its removal was necessary to keep the Horn of Africa from becoming a terrorist haven. Now administration officials appear to be reconsidering the wisdom of regime change.
A U.S. intelligence report sent to Congress on Wednesday paints a bleak picture of the future of the transitional government.
The government “is widely perceived by Somalis to be little more than a pawn of Ethiopia, yet its continued survival, certainly in Mogadishu, remains dependent on the support for the Ethiopian military,” said the report. “Continued turmoil could enable extremists to regain their footing and heighten inter-state tensions throughout the region.”
Last month, Jendayi Frazer, the State Department’s top Africa envoy, was quoted as saying about Somalia: “It’s hard to say whether it is better or worse off” since the Ethiopian invasion.
Referring to those comments, a Western diplomat in the region who helps formulate Somalia policy said, “They’re saying they got it wrong. But you can’t really recover from these mistakes.”
The official did not want to be named because of his criticism of U.S. policies. But he said Somalia was becoming the sort of magnet for foreign jihadists that the Bush administration sought to avoid. The insurgents are reportedly using more sophisticated weapons, such as roadside bombs and anti-tank devices, against government and Ethiopian forces.
“They’re getting guidance from outside Somalia, like Afghanistan or Pakistan,” the diplomat said, without elaborating. “We’re in danger of seeing a re-emergence of an active African Somalia A.Q. (al-Qaida) cell.”
Diplomats have been pressing the government to hold a reconciliation conference to begin the long process of building a stable, inclusive political system and ending the clan-based fighting that has plagued Somalia since 1991.
“This is the only scenario to avoid Somalia slipping back into civil war,” the official said. “We don’t have a Plan B.”
But Plan A is far from desirable, considering that the conference could spark more violence. After the site was hit with mortar fire overnight Thursday, it wasn’t clear whether workers would finish repairing the roof and windows in time to host 1,350 invited politicians, tribal elders, ex-warlords and other delegates – or how many of them would show up. By Friday morning, about 500 had arrived.
The conference is already split along clan lines. Critics say that the government, which is controlled by men from the northern Darod clan, hasn’t reached out to their most powerful enemies, the Islamists, or to their allies in the rival Hawiye clan, which is dominant in Mogadishu.
“We need inclusive dialogue and for all people to attend the conference of their own accord – not by force,” said Mohammed Hassan Haat, acting chairman of the Hawiye Traditional Elders Council, which is boycotting the event.
“The government is isolating us and everyone opposed to its politics. This is not creating a peaceful environment.”
United Nations officials are eager to launch the conference, which is expected to last several weeks. But even they don’t want to get too close. Envoys based in neighboring Kenya were making arrangements Friday to have the opening ceremony moved near Mogadishu’s seaside airport, far from the conference site, so they could fly in, pose for photos and quickly return to Kenya.
Some Somalis questioned the wisdom of staging the conference now.
“If the government and the international community insist to launch the conference, then it can create a worse situation than now. Clearly, fighting will start,” said one prominent civic activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.
“It seems that the insurgents are determined and government is determined, and the only outcome of this determination is actually going to be a war.”