NAIROBI, Kenya — A long-awaited assault on the southern Somali port of Kismayo that Western governments hope will end the influence of al Qaida’s branch in Somalia has been delayed over last-minute negotiations on how to divide the spoils and avoid more civil war should the city fall.
In a struggle between neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, representatives from East African countries have been meeting this week with representatives from different Somali factions to discuss carving out yet another semiautonomous region in Somalia if Kismayo is captured.
Last October, Kenya sent troops across its border with Somalia to root out fighters aligned with al Shabab, the Somalia affiliate of al Qaida. In June, Kenya’s prime minister promised that his country’s forces would take Kismayo by this month, ahead of Somalia’s transition to a new federal government next week.
But a spokesman for Ras Kamboni, a Somali militia that’s fighting alongside Kenyan troops, said those plans had been delayed for "political reasons" and promised only that the offensive would be begin before the end of the month.
"We are avoiding a situation where we capture a town and people fight over what clan should be in charge of a specific area. We are working closely with clan elders to avoid clan clashes," said Abdinasir Serar, the Ras Kamboni spokesman.
"You don’t want a situation whereby al Shabab is taking advantage of disorganization in an area,” he said. “We have to move very carefully so that al Shabab won’t have any opportunities to exploit."
During the civil war that’s raged in Somalia for 20 years, the country has become divided into autonomous regions, often based on which clan was dominant. Sometimes the claims have overlapped. The fall of Kismayo and the vanquishing of al Shabab would add southern Somalia to the areas in which competing interests will vie for control.
Ethiopia has feared that Kenya plans to create a southern Somalia autonomous state, sometimes referred to as the Jubaland Initiative, that would be sympathetic to the rebellion in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, which is dominated by ethnic Somalis.
After invading Somalia last year, Kenya denied that the Jubaland Initiative was still being considered, although State Department cables leaked by the website WikiLeaks showed that the Kenyan government privately had been pushing hard for the new Jubaland region, led by a member of the Ogaden clan. Kenya’s defense minister, who’s ethnically Somali, is also from the Ogaden clan.
While East Africa’s heavyweights huddle in Nairobi to seek a compromise, al Shabab is preparing to defend Kismayo and avert its own demise, including ordering clan leaders to contribute 150 fighters each to defense efforts.
“Some of those clans have already brought the required youths. The Shabab threatened to take steps against clans who don’t obey the orders,” said Warsame, 32, a resident of Kismayo who was interviewed by phone. He asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of retribution.
When it invaded last year, Kenya predicted that it would capture Kismayo quickly, but the advance went much more slowly than expected and now it still isn’t certain that Kismayo will fall fast. The area is heavily forested, giving seasoned al Shabab fighters cover from air assault and impeding the advance of mechanized equipment.
Signs of impending battle, however, have become frequent. On Saturday, Kismayo was rocked with artillery from the sea. Three civilians died and four more were wounded, according to residents. Meanwhile, al Shabab has levied new taxes, food prices are skyrocketing and thousands have fled the city in anticipation of the attack, swelling the population of camps for the displaced as far away as Mogadishu.
"The port is not functioning. The people are using whatever food they have saved, and there is no direct way to Kenya and the outside region except for very rough routes," said Abdirashid Bure Omar, a local elder in Kismayo, who blamed both al Shabab and the Kenyan forces for restricting road routes. Omar was interviewed by phone – al Shabab doesn’t allow independent journalists in areas under its control – and it wasn’t possible to verify his statements.
Col. Ali Adam Hamud, the spokesman for African Union troops – who are in Somalia to defend the country’s internationally recognized government – said he was aware of the bombardment of Kismayo but that he didn’t know whether African Union countries were involved. Kenya, Uganda and Burundi all contribute troops to the African Union presence.
The United .States denied persistent speculation that its warships had fired on Kismayo. Ambassador James Swan, the Obama administration’s special representative for Somalia, said U.S. forces weren’t involved in the efforts to uproot al Shabab. "What we are seeing in the region is an African response to an African crisis," he said.
But Swan also said the U.S. was encouraging those efforts, and the United States has contributed heavily to stabilization efforts in Somalia, including $355 million in direct support to countries who are part of the African Union military force. The U.S. views al Shabab as its most dangerous adversary in East Africa.
Even if al Shabab is dislodged from Kismayo, the group is unlikely to disappear. United Nations reports detail how the group has expanded its reach underground into fundraising and recruiting cells across East Africa.
McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed Yusuf contributed to this article from Nairobi.
Boswell and Ibrahim are McClatchy special correspondents. Ibrahim reported from Mogadishu, Somalia. Boswell’s reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.