MOGADISHU, Somalia — As the Ethiopian army pressed its rapid advance to the outskirts of the Somali capital on behalf of Somalia's weak transitional government, top officials of the rival Islamist regime and many supporters were reported to have fled Wednesday, leaving the city of some 2 million in chaos and panic.
Lawless elements took over the streets, with armed men firing into the air, hijacking cars and holding up passers-by. The scene was reminiscent of the anarchy 15 years ago that led to an unsuccessful United Nations intervention in which 18 U.S. troops were killed.
In Washington, the Bush administration again gave its tacit support for Ethiopia's armed intervention. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Somalia's Christian-led neighbor had "genuine security concerns" in this predominantly Muslim state.
But in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, the African Union and the Arab League demanded the withdrawal of all foreign forces — including the thousands of Ethiopian troops backed by armor and combat aircraft, as well as foreign volunteers fighting for the Council of Islamist Courts movement.
In the face of Ethiopia's well-equipped forces, who were invited into the country by the transitional federal government, units loyal to the Islamic Courts abandoned the fight for three major districts close to Mogadishu on Wednesday. The biggest single loss was the town of Jowhar, the Courts' main stronghold before it seized Mogadishu without a fight last June. Jowhar fell apparently without resistance. Ethiopian forces also captured Mahadey and Buurane districts, largely without a fight.
The government of Ethiopia has said it will not seize Mogadishu, but in view of the absence of credible forces loyal to the transitional federal government, international observers warned that only warlords, who are widely blamed for 15 years of chaos, are likely to fill the vacuum. Indeed, as the Ethiopian army rolled across the countryside the past three weeks, some of the warlords who had been driven from the towns and cities by the Courts movement returned to take charge.
Although top Islamist officials had threatened a jihad, or holy war, against Ethiopia and called for volunteers to defend the Somali capital, they changed their tactics Wednesday and distributed submachine guns to the public. By midday, none of their security vehicles could be spotted on the streets, and armed local elements were in control.
"Our fear is that the former warlords, whom the (Courts) defeated, will creep back into the situation and resume some of their own authority," said Matthew Olins, an official of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in nearby Nairobi, Kenya. "These guys can't control their own militias or bring in law and order." If Ethiopian forces don't take control of Mogadishu, "there will be a vacuum and chaos," he said.
The U.N.'s top representative in Mogadishu, Eric Laroche, said the most worrisome development was that the Islamists surrendered power in several locations to "sub-clans," a handover likely to lead to a resumption of clan competition and chaos across the country. Even with Ethiopian backing, the transitional federal government doesn't have the means to impose law and order, Laroche said from Nairobi. "It is clear that if Mogadishu falls, someone will have to provide law and order." Otherwise, "we are going to enter a period of chaos."
(Elmi is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent. Roy Gutman in Washington contributed to this report.)