WASHINGTON—Muslim militias claimed Monday to have routed warlords allegedly backed by the United States after weeks of fighting for control of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, dealing a setback to U.S. efforts to contain the spread of militant Islam.
U.S. officials and other experts warned that if the militias consolidated their victory they would establish an Islamist state where al-Qaida could secure bases from which it could spread its violent ideology to other East African and Horn of Africa nations.
The Islamists' claim of victory in Mogadishu comes as the United States and its allies struggle to contain growing Islamic violence in Iraq and some of the fiercest attacks in Afghanistan by the Taliban since that Islamic militia was driven from power in 2001.
Al-Qaida-inspired extremists might be allowed to use Somalia as a refuge from which to support and mount operations against Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the world's No. 1 oil producer, located a boat ride away across the Red Sea, said U.S. officials and other experts.
Somalia "can be a platform for further action," warned Bruno Schiemsky, the chairman of a group of experts appointed by the U.N. Security Council to monitor Somalia, in a telephone interview from Nairobi, Kenya.
With Mogadishu under their control, the Islamist militias are expected to quickly move on other cities, he said.
"If they can grab control and maintain it, Somalia becomes a little place that becomes important to al-Qaida and other Islamists," agreed Michael Scheuer, who was the first chief of the CIA unit that tracks Osama bin Laden and his network.
John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization, said it's too early to predict what could happen. The secular warlords could rebuild their forces with outside aid and launch a counteroffensive for Mogadishu.
Territory has frequently traded hands since central government rule collapsed in 1991, plunging Somalia into anarchy and civil strife that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
But a U.S. counterterrorism official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the Islamic militias' apparent seizure of Mogadishu is "certainly not a positive development in terms of (U.S.) efforts to fight terrorism. It's worrisome."
U.S. officials said the Islamists are already hosting the al-Qaida planner of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and two organizers of a failed 2002 attempt to down an Israeli passenger jet in Kenya with a missile.
The Somali Islamists also have received training from militants from Pakistan, Indonesia and Arab countries, including Syria and Algeria, said Schiemsky.
The United States hasn't been directly involved in Somalia since 18 U.S. troops were killed in Mogadishu in 1993 during vicious street fighting depicted in the film "Black Hawk Down."
But the Bush administration has deployed about 1,500 U.S. troops in the tiny nation of Djibouti, on Somalia's northern border, as part of a regional strategy of preventing al-Qaida and other radical Islamic groups from operating in the rugged, poverty-stricken and largely lawless Horn of Africa.
The United States has been secretly supporting a coalition of secular Somali warlords, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, according to leaders of a largely powerless transitional central government restricted to the city of Baidoa, according to regional observers and news reports.
Prendergast said that three alliance leaders recently told him that they were receiving funds from the CIA.
"Our assessment is between $100,000 and $150,000 per month," said Prendergast, who served on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration.
The CIA declined to comment.
Other countries, including Italy, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia, also have been backing various Somali factions, according to a May 4 report to the U.N. Security Council by the experts group led by Schiemsky.
The bloodiest fighting in more than a decade erupted in February between the alliance and the Islamic militias. The militias are associated with Islamic courts that have succeeded in the past several years in bringing order to some areas by enforcing Islamic law.
The violence escalated last month as the Islamic militias moved to take control of Mogadishu, with hundreds of people dying in fierce street battles.
Princeton Lyman, a former senior State Department official, likened the emergence of the Islamic militias to the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan during the mid-`90s. The Taliban gave refuge to bin Laden and his followers.
In both cases, he said, the Islamists won support from ordinary people weary of years of violence, corrupt warlords and the absence of a functioning government.
"For the United States, this is a serious problem," said Lyman, a former ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria who's with the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy organization.
He said the Bush administration should begin working urgently with regional governments and Somaliland, an unrecognized self-declared independent nation in northern Somalia, to contain Somalia's Islamic militias.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060605 SOMALIA timeline
Need to map