JOWHAR, Somalia – Five months old and weighing less than 10 pounds, Shukri Mohammed stretched her tiny mouth to scream Tuesday when a health worker measured her limp arm for malnutrition.

But scarcely a sound escaped from the baby’s throat, and she sank back exhausted into her mother’s arms.

It’s been a struggle since the day Shukri was born. The next morning, her mother walked three days to escape shelling in Mogadishu that recently had killed her husband. Now settled with her mother in a displacement camp in Jowhar, north of Mogadishu, Shukri is likely to die quickly unless admitted to a hospital.

As attention focuses on the Darfur region of Sudan, Somalia is quietly disintegrating into Africa’s worst humanitarian emergency, according to experts.

Last week, United Nations Emergency Coordinator John Holmes said that conditions in Somalia had eclipsed those in Darfur and Chad as the most pressing African humanitarian crisis.

Malnutrition and disease are soaring here amid political insecurity and a string of natural disasters, including flooding and drought.

With many Western charities afraid to work in the dangerous country, the transitional government is struggling to cope but lacks experience and funding. Recently, aid groups complain, the government exacerbated the crisis by attempting to tax incoming humanitarian assistance, setting up roadblocks that hinder food deliveries and even intimidating charities and the displaced by accusing them of supporting terrorists.

About 350,000 Somalis remain refugees from fighting earlier this year in Mogadishu between government soldiers, supported by thousands of Ethiopian troops, and an insurgency consisting of anti-government clans and Islamist fighters. About 1.5 million people require humanitarian aid, an increase of 50 percent in recent months.

Malnutrition rates are skyrocketing. About 17 percent of children nationwide, or 83,000, are malnourished, according to UNICEF. Some 13,500 children, including Shukri, are so severely malnourished they are at risk of starvation.

After 16 years of civil war and clan fighting, Somalis are accustomed to hardship. There hasn’t been a fully functioning government since 1991. But the displacement crisis and natural disasters are pushing the emergency to a new level and into new areas.

Jowhar had long been an island of stability and agricultural prosperity in southern Somalia. Now, the nation’s breadbasket requires food assistance itself for the first time since a nationwide famine from 1991 to 1993. Nearly 8,700 children are at risk of starvation, according to UNICEF.

“Around here we’ve never seen this,” said Owliyo Moalim, 44, a mother of five, as she lined up Monday with hundreds of other local woman to receive a World Food Program distribution of corn, beans and oil.

Her family used to harvest crops every three months. But consecutive floods have prevented harvesting since October 2005, she said.

Somalia is also paying the price of years of anarchy, some residents said.

In the village of Boodle, south of Jowhar, children escaped the heat Tuesday by splashing in a giant lake. But the newly created lake sits atop the flooded ruins of the town’s crops, immersed two months ago when the banks of the Shabelle River overflowed after years of neglect and erosion.

“We tried to maintain the banks, but it requires bulldozers and tractors,” said Hamdi Musei Osman, chief of the village. “When we had a government, they would do it. But we can’t do it ourselves.”

More than 22 villages, with about 8,000 people, have been affected . With food running out, many children show early signs of malnutrition, including swollen limbs and orange-tinted hair. Fifteen have been hospitalized in the past month for malnutrition, Osman said. The stagnant water is also causing a surge in malaria, which has killed nine villagers in the past two months.

Government officials say they are overwhelmed. After seizing control of Mogadishu in December from an alliance of Islamist leaders, officials have struggled to maintain control. Though regional administrations and federal ministries have been established, they lack funding, equipment and experience.

“We don’t have the power and the resources to manage this kind of crisis,” said Qamar Adan Ali, Somalia’s health minister. “We even depend on foreign donors for our salaries.”

Critics accuse some government officials of aggravating the problem through such soundly criticized ideas as the tax on humanitarian aid, which was dropped early this year amid protests. Nonetheless, scores of government checkpoints still dot the roads, often charging $500 before allowing food truck or aid vehicles to pass.

In recent months, government officials, including Mogadishu’s mayor, were quoted in the local media as complaining that some local charities and aid groups had links to Islamist fighters. Even refugees from Mogadishu’s violence were dismissed as supporting terrorists.

After complaints from U.N. officials and a letter from the U.S. E mbassy, Somali officials have softened their rhetoric. But experts say the government must do more to welcome and accommodate foreign aid groups.

“If you want to be a government, you have to behave like a government,” said John Yates, the U.S. special envoy to Somalia.

The U.S. has provided $120 million in humanitarian aid to Somalia over the past 12 months.

Foreign aid groups also have been slow to respond, according to UNICEF’s Somalia representative Christian Balslev-Olesen. Several well-known charities, both from Western countries and the Arab world, do not maintain operations in Somalia, largely because of the ongoing violence. Last week, a driver for the Somali Red Crescent Society was shot during a hijack by three gunmen.

But Balslev-Olesen said the need for additional international aid agencies is critical.

“If you had this level of malnutrition in Darfur or anywhere else in the world,” he said, “you would be seeing dozens of (aid groups) all around town.”

Back at the displacement camp, UNICEF nutrition coordinator James Kingori gingerly handed Shukri back to her mother and stressed that the baby should be taken immediately to the local hospital.

Later he worried whether the mother, who said she had four other children at home, would heed his advice. Attending to a hospitalized infant can sometimes come at a price to the rest of the family, he said.

“Sometimes they just wait and hope the baby gets better,” he said. “These are the kinds of choices mothers are having to make.”

Special correspondent Lutfi Mohammed contributed to this report.

AP-NY-09-25-07 1840EDT

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