NAIROBI, Kenya — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Ethiopia this week puts a spotlight on the tight but troubled relationship between the United States and the volatile Horn of Africa nation.
Over the past year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has emerged as the Bush administration's staunchest African ally in the war on terrorism, sending troops into neighboring Somalia to topple a hard-line Islamist regime and cooperating with the U.S. military in a hunt for al Qaida suspects that so far has been unsuccessful.
But Rice's arrival Wednesday comes as Ethiopian troops are bogged down against Islamist-led insurgents in Somalia and face a growing outcry over alleged human rights abuses against Muslims in the restive Ogaden region — two conflicts that experts believe could serve as a rallying cry for Islamic fundamentalists.
While Rice is expected to focus on other African hot spots — Sudan, Somalia, Congo — when she arrives, experts say that the visit will serve as a diplomatic pat on the back for Meles.
"It's clearly an indication of support for the government in Ethiopia and an acknowledgement of their support on issues related to counterterrorism," said David Shinn, an ambassador to Ethiopia during the Clinton administration.
That support looks increasingly problematic.
Last December, Ethiopian forces, backed by U.S. military intelligence, ousted an Islamist regime in Somalia that the Bush administration said had ties to al Qaida. The U.S. military launched airstrikes in Somalia this year on suspected terrorists, including three men wanted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, but none of the leading suspects is believed to have been killed.
Meanwhile, one of the targets, Aden Hashi Ayro, an Afghanistan-trained jihadist who is on U.S. terror lists, has returned to Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. At the helm of a militant group known as the Shabaab, Ayro has called for holy war against Ethiopian and Somali government forces.
Facing near-daily attacks, Ethiopia recently sent in reinforcement troops, boosting its occupation force to perhaps as many as 10,000, say security analysts.
Some experts believe that Ethiopia, with its heritage of Christianity, is proving to be a magnet for foreign jihadists. Somalia's U.S.-backed president, Abdullahi Yusuf, has said that Shabaab has an "international wing" that includes fighters from foreign countries, while the proliferation of remote-controlled roadside bombs — a new tactic in Somalia — suggests a more sophisticated insurgency.
Foreign fighters "have been in Somalia in small, modest numbers for some time," Shinn said. "The longer the Ethiopian presence remains, it's likely to increase, even if not in large numbers."
New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused Ethiopian forces of violating the laws of war by indiscriminately bombing densely populated parts of Mogadishu and deliberately shooting civilians. The U.N. estimates that 215,000 people fled their homes over the past six weeks, and relief agencies are struggling to deliver food and medical supplies to refugee encampments along a dusty highway leading away from Mogadishu.
"There is no solution to the humanitarian crisis with the presence of Ethiopian troops," Georges-Marc Andre, the European Union's special envoy to Somalia, said recently.
In Ethiopia, clashes have escalated between government troops and a separatist group known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which is made up of ethnic Somali Muslims in the desert-like eastern region bordering Somalia. Ogaden refugees have accused Ethiopian forces of blocking all commercial trucks, commandeering food and water supplies and executing civilians accused of supporting the rebel group.
Some Somalis are now fighting alongside the Ogaden insurgents, according to a Somali Islamist leader who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
Analysts believe that Ethiopia, which has one of the best equipped armies in Africa, will continue to fight on both fronts, raising the possibility of even worse conflict.
"Ethiopia at the end won't lose," said a senior Western diplomat who follows Somalia, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists. "They will throw men and money at the problem until they lick it."
Meanwhile, Meles faces trouble on the home front as international observers voice concerns about the lack of political freedom ahead of local elections next year.
In July, Ethiopia freed 38 opposition leaders who'd spent nearly two years in prison for allegedly fomenting unrest following disputed elections in 2005. But opponents say that the government continues to stifle their activities, preventing them even from opening offices.
Andargachew Tsege, a leader of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy, said that Rice's visit could overshadow the problems in Ethiopia, where four out of five people live on less than $2 per day.
"Simply her presence there would give an impression that everything is well," he said by phone from London, where he lives in exile. "That is a diplomatic bonus for Meles."
(A McClatchy special correspondent, who cannot be named due to safety concerns, contributed to this report from Mogadishu.)