MOGADISHU, Somalia—In early March, nine of Mogadishu's most prominent community leaders secretly flew to neighboring Djibouti and pleaded with U.S. military officials there to stop funding the warlords who were devastating the city. Backing the warlords, they said, would end up strengthening an Islamist militia with a shadowy radical wing.
The Americans ignored their warnings, three of the Somalis at the meeting told Knight Ridder in separate interviews, and the community leaders' fears came to life this month when the Islamic Courts Union militia defeated the warlords and took control of the Somali capital.
Now, the Bush administration's Somalia strategy is in tatters, and the Islamist militia is poised to extend its control to all of southern Somalia, where intelligence officials believe at least two senior al-Qaida operatives are hiding.
It was impossible to confirm the Somali leaders' version of events. U.S. officials in Washington have declined to comment on whether the United States provided aid to the warlords. Two U.S. intelligence officials, speaking anonymously because they aren't authorized to talk to journalists, confirmed, however, that CIA financial support was coordinated by the agency's station chief in Nairobi.
A spokesman for the U.S. counterterrorism task force based at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti declined to comment.
However, two U.S, intelligence officials, speaking anonymously because they aren't authorized to talk to the media, said that CIA financial support for the warlords was approved by the Bush administration and coordinated by the agency's station chief in Nairobi. On Saturday, news agencies, quoting residents here, reported that two warlords fled to an American naval vessel off the Somali coast.
With Mogadishu now under their control, Islamic Courts forces have continued their offensive. They control the town of Jowhar, 55 miles north of Mogadishu, and are preparing for an assault on Beledweyne, 190 miles north, near the Ethiopian border. Analysts are concerned that the Islamic Courts may move on Baidoa, the town 150 miles from the capital where an almost-powerless but internationally recognized transitional government has been housed for nearly two years.
Some of the warlords are surrendering their weapons to the Islamist militias, providing the militias with new weaponry—most of which was bought with U.S. funds, Somalis charge.
"The Islamic Courts had nothing in the beginning," said Ali Iman Sharmarke, a member of the delegation that traveled to Djibouti in March and a managing partner of the HornAfric media corporation in Mogadishu. "They only got their power through fighting. Now, they've captured $15 million in weapons from the warlords."
Somali community leaders interviewed here in recent days said that the Islamist takeover was avoidable at the time of the Djibouti meeting. They said that they warned the Americans that the warlords, who'd banded together in February to form the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), were wildly unpopular and would be defeated by the Islamists.
They said they tried to persuade the Americans to focus instead on reconstruction efforts and support for the interim government in Baidoa.
"The money was creating the war. If they stopped the money, the warlords would have been weakened," said Abdelkadir Mohamed Nur, a Somali-American businessman who led the delegation to Djibouti. "It could have been peaceful. It could have been a power-sharing situation. Instead, it's a failure. We told the Americans, `If you contribute money this way, you create terrorists and extremists because people think you are fighting their religion.'"
The warlord alliance began as a proxy force for U.S. intelligence and special forces teams hunting al-Qaida suspects, but many Somalis said that the leaders also used it to settle scores with rival clans and brutalize residents at roadblocks throughout the city.
The alliance did capture of at least two high-level fugitives and disrupted plans for operations elsewhere, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, an independent group based in Brussels, Belgium, that tracks international conflicts.
But those successes were overshadowed by a pattern of seizing innocent clerics with little or no intelligence value, according to an ICG report issued last year.
Ordinary Somalis were outraged at what they perceived as a war against Islam, cementing public support for the then-fledgling Islamic Courts Union.
Residents here said the money flowing into the coffers of militia leaders was no secret.
They report mysterious planes arrived at landing strips operated by the warlords. Local arms dealers in the Bakara Market said the warlords' troops began using "brand new" dollars to buy an arsenal of machine guns, antiaircraft artillery, recoilless rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Prices at the weapons bazaar skyrocketed—the cost of a bullet, for example, jumped from $1 to $9.
"We saw the money coming," Nur said. "If an extra $100,000 shows up in Mogadishu, we know."
As the death toll mounted, Nur said that he and eight other community leaders decided to tell the Americans face-to-face that backing the alliance could lead to unwelcome consequences for both Mogadishu and Washington. He said they arranged a meeting with a U.S. general at the American base in Djibouti, the headquarters of U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa.
The following account of the meeting comes from interviews with Nur, Sharmarke and Abdullahi M. Shirwa, a retired linguistics professor who helped found a community service organization in Mogadishu in 2003. The three were interviewed separately and provided similar version of events.
The delegates chartered a plane on March 13 and landed in Djibouti, where they were stunned to hear that the general wasn't available and that they wouldn't be visiting the U.S. compound. Deeply offended, the Somalis nevertheless accepted a consolation offer to meet with lower-ranking officials.
They went to the Djibouti Sheraton Hotel, where about a dozen Americans in civilian clothes introduced themselves as representatives of the U.S. military. The Somalis said they believed the majority of them were intelligence officers.
The Americans present included a major, a woman described as an intelligence analyst and a chaplain, according to the Somalis. The Somali side included two Islamist clerics.
The meeting was tense from the beginning, according to the Somalis.
"We explained to them that the Americans are supplying the warlords and that the war in Mogadishu is to support U.S. intelligence. We told them this is not the way to go," Nur recalled. "Their answer was: `We have no policy for Somalia.'"
The delegation countered that the United States did indeed have a policy for the country: paying warlord proxies to root out Islamist radicals in dirty wars that had cost the lives of hundreds of civilians.
"We told them we would like to know why America is supporting killers. They said, `We are not policymakers so we can't answer your questions,'" Shirwa said. "We told them the warlords openly say the Americans are helping them. They said, `We don't know anything about that. We are implementers, not policymakers.'"
The Somalis left the meeting dejected. But they hoped that the U.S. officials would report the Somalis' concerns to Washington, so upon their return to Mogadishu they appointed a member to send regular briefings to the base in Djibouti.
The e-mail correspondence didn't last long, said Shirwa, who recalled receiving only two responses before the U.S. officials stopped writing back. The Somalis had offered an up-to-the-minute summary of developments out of Mogadishu; the Americans didn't seem to want it.
"We opened the channel. They closed it," Shirwa said. "It was a critical time in our history. All this going on now was avoidable at that time. We could have planned together for other alternatives to avoid destruction and more extremist empowerment."
(Knight Ridder correspondent Shashank Bengali in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SOMALIA
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): SOMALIA
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