African Nations Crack Down on Somali Warlords

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - A meeting in New York Wednesday will look at how the U.S. and other interested countries plan to respond to the situation in Somalia, but the peacekeeping force option favored by the U.S. is likely to run into opposition from the Islamists now in control of Mogadishu.

Somalia's embattled transitional government, based outside the capital, has requested a peacekeeping force, but Sheikh Sherif Ahmed, chairman of the group known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), said it would withdraw from newly-opened talks with the government if peacekeepers were brought in.

The ICU, which favors imposing Islamic law (shari'a), seized control of the capital after routing a coalition of warlords and businessmen allegedly supported financially by the U.S.

Ahmed has expressed interest in seeking "an understanding" with Washington but it remains unclear whether the six-nation Somalia Contact Group that meets Wednesday in New York will agree to work with the Islamists, since the U.S. is seen as particularly reluctant to do so.

Kenya's foreign minister, Rapheal Tuju, said a common international effort to stabilize Somalia was important, but African governments were not in a position to tell "the most powerful country in the world" with whom it should deal.

A security analyst here said the best option for the U.S. would be to engage the ICU diplomatically.

"The Islamists have now become an important part of the Somalia equation," said Peter Korr. "They enjoy public support and have showed they are capable militarily."

At the same time, however, the analyst said it would be disastrous for regional security if the ICU was allowed to establish a strong political hold in Somalia.

If that were to happen, Somalia would become a key Islamic link between North Africa and the Middle East on one hand and the Indian Ocean side of sub-Saharan Africa on the other, he said.

Western nations are concerned that Ahmed's group will introduce Islamic laws and offer terrorists a safe haven in Somalia.

The ICU has, however, rejected the concerns, saying in letters sent to Western embassies that it had no links to terrorism. Instead it accused Somali warlords of fuelling criminal activities and not being interested in a functioning government.

Somalia's transitional government and other African countries appear to be willing to give the Islamists the benefit of the doubt. East African governments are cracking down on the warlords, warning they may face prosecution for crimes against humanity if they do not stop fighting.

Sanctions imposed against the warlords this week include a freeze on assets and a travel ban.

Another African analyst, who did not want to be named because of his involvement in initiatives by African governments to find a solution to the Somalia problem, said North Africa and Middle East nations had shifted their support to the ICU because of perceived U.S. support for the warlords.

(Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)

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