Political crisis pushes Somalia closer to war

By William Maclean

NAIROBI (Reuters) - A worsening political crisis threatens to plunge Somalia back into war and open a new era of humanitarian suffering, experts say.

Trust collapsed between the two opposing wings of its divided government many months ago, triggering a mainly rhetorical struggle for power as both sides squabbled over where in the failed state their administration should be based.

That development failed to stimulate a forceful international response, due to growing disarray among interested foreign powers over how to handle the Horn of Africa country.

But recent events have taken emotions inside President Abdullahi Yusuf's government to new levels of acrimony, and foreign powers will find it hard to remain aloof if warlords start settling their disputes through armed force, Somalis say.

Worried analysts point to movements of pro- and anti-Yusuf militias, a huge increase in arms imports, assassinations of high profile Somalis in Mogadishu, the failure of a disarmament project in the capital, and increased activity by militant Islamists seeking to exploit a deepening power vacuum.

"The ill-will of the protagonists has brought our people to the brink of another bloody war," wrote elder statesman and former Prime Minister Abdirazak Haji Hussen in a paper circulated among Somalia analysts.

"Recent militia movements in the central region and reportedly from Ethiopia, and in Mogadishu, are clear signals that something ominous is about to unfold.

"I alert the world community to brace itself for another catastrophic humanitarian situation and a flood of refugees."

THRIVING ON CONFLICT

If the country tumbles deeper into anarchy, the only winners are likely to be warlords skilled at thriving on conflict and militant Islamists who have adroitly used the political crisis to carve out a bigger role in Mogadishu politics, experts say.

The government has been recruiting fighters across the country in recent weeks in what looks to many like the prelude to an attack on bases held by some cabinet ministers critical of Yusuf, many of whom are based in Mogadishu.

Yusuf, on good terms with regional power Ethiopia, said he would persuade rather than force his critics, who include some Mogadishu warlords and powerful businessmen, to cooperate.

But critics say the attempt by Yusuf, 70, to build a force is consistent with his past as a provincial warlord who has never shown flair for the diplomatic deal-making needed to build alliances among Mogadishu's fractious clan militias.

Ethiopia, Somalia's historic foe, denies giving Yusuf military help, but witnesses have reported Ethiopian officers helping train Yusuf's forces in several places in recent weeks.

Yusuf's opponents -- warlords and Islamists -- have reacted by reorganizing their own militias to form a united front strong enough to deter what they see as Yusuf's bid to impose his rule.

"Abdullahi Yusuf's militarist approach to reconciliation has produced an opportunistic solidarity among warlords in Mogadishu," said Somali analyst Abdi Ismail Samatar.

Some dismiss the effort to create a common front as a marriage of convenience to defend lucrative businesses including ports, airports, checkpoints, drug smuggling and weapons trading.

But so big are the spoils, the alliance could well last as long as it takes to rebuff any attack by Yusuf, experts say.

Yusuf's opponents want him and his prime minister, Mohamed Ali Gedi, to come and govern from Mogadishu. But Yusuf, whose political base is north-central Somalia, is working temporarily from provincial towns as he feels the capital is too risky.

Earlier this year the U.N. Security Council declared that any hostile military action by any party would be unacceptable.

But no major foreign government has bothered to repeat that message consistently at a senior level, partly because there is no consensus on how to restore the peace process, experts say.

"WATCHING PREPARATIONS FOR WAR"

Italy, China and Ethiopia are seen as closely allied to Yusuf. Eritrea, and some Arab states, are seen as allied to the Mogadishu group. Other major powers want to hold back funding for the government until it can agree where it should be based.

"It is incomprehensible that the international community is inattentively watching the two factions prepare for war," said Samatar.

Somalia has been without a central government since warlords ousted former dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Most of Somalia has since been carved up between rival militias and hundreds of thousands of people have died from famine and war.

Any conflict would trigger yet more suffering, Somalis say.

The Food Security Analysis Unit, a project of the European Union and U.S. government, predicts the lowest cereal harvest in a decade in southern Somalia this year thanks to poor rains.

It said one million Somalis, including 377,000 displaced people, urgently needed food to stay alive. "The entire southern part of Somalia (is) on alert status due to unsolved tensions within the government and reports of military build-ups," it said. "If widespread combat were to ensue it would have a devastating effect on human lives and livelihoods." 


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