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War between Islamists, government is brewing in Somalia

NAIROBI, Kenya—Five months after Islamist militias defeated a coalition of CIA-financed warlords, Somalia appears to be sliding toward a major war that diplomats fear will draw thousands of foreign fighters to the Islamist side and spill into neighboring countries.

The rise of the Islamists, who took control of the capital, Mogadishu, in June and since have seized most of southern Somalia, already was a setback for U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region, where al-Qaida loyalists are believed to be hiding. A full-scale war would be a major test for Bush administration policy in a place that Osama bin Laden has called a battlefield in his war against the West.

Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Eritrea are backing the Islamists with a dizzying influx of weapons, supplies and military personnel, according to a new United Nations report to be presented Friday to the U.N. Security Council. The support ranges from uniforms to first-aid kits to surface-to-air missiles, and, in one case, guerrilla training at a camp in Syria, the report says.

On the other side is Somalia's weak interim government, backed by U.S. ally Ethiopia, which the report says has sent thousands of troops to protect the government's hold on its only major outpost, the town of Baidoa, 150 miles northwest of Mogadishu. Uganda and Yemen are providing weapons.

A senior U.S. military officer conceded last week that the U.S. has no strategy in place should war break out and denied that the U.S. government is using Ethiopia as a proxy against the Islamists. "The U.S. position is we don't want them actively involved," said the officer, who briefed reporters in Nairobi on condition of anonymity.

But some observers said the United States hasn't discouraged Ethiopia, whose leader, Meles Zenawi, has said he won't tolerate a fundamentalist regime on his borders.

The Islamists have disavowed ties to terrorist groups, but U.S. officials accuse their supreme leader, Hassan Dahir Aweys, of having links to al-Qaida. Last week, the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, citing messages from Aweys posted on Islamist Web sites, warned of potential suicide attacks in Kenya and Ethiopia.

The new U.N. report, assembled by a panel of experts monitoring a long-ignored arms embargo, said hundreds of battle-hungry foreign jihadists, some of them trained in suicide bombing and assassination techniques, have joined the Islamists in Somalia.

The spark for a conflict could come from Ethiopia or from its enemy, Eritrea, the Islamists' chief sponsor and, the U.N. report says, a conduit for Arab support. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a grisly war in 1998-2000 over a border that's still disputed. Eritrea is also thought to have thousands of troops in Somalia.

The findings of the U.N. report couldn't be independently verified. But virtually everyone agrees that the prospects for war are high.

"This scenario is the one that we all feared, that the threat of war could reach these proportions," said Matt Bryden, a veteran analyst who consults for the International Crisis Group think tank. "Nothing is preventing things (from) moving in this direction."

Somalia has been a black hole for U.S. policy in Africa for more than a decade, since the deaths of 18 soldiers in the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" episode in Mogadishu precipitated the withdrawal of 25,000 U.S. troops. There's been no official U.S. presence in Somalia since.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration saw Somalia's mix of poverty and anarchy as a potentially dangerous breeding ground for terrorists. In 2005, CIA operatives began clandestinely funneling money to Mogadishu warlords in exchange for intelligence on terror suspects—an operation that fell apart in June when the Islamists drove the hated warlords from the city.

The U.N. report says that the Islamists—officially a federation of Muslim sharia law courts—have quickly become the most powerful force in the country. They've cracked down on crime by imposing Muslim law and reopened Mogadishu's airport and seaport, boosting economic activity.

With help from Arab allies, they've organized their once-patchwork militias into a coherent fighting force, amassed a huge range of arms and military vehicles, recruited foreign fighters to their cause and begun formal training camps.

The report also details cooperation between the Islamists and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah. About 720 Somalis fought alongside Hezbollah in this summer's war against Israel in exchange for support and training from Hezbollah patrons Syria and Iran, including guerrilla training of 200 Somalis in Syria in July, the report says.

The Islamists are "fully capable of turning Somalia into an Iraq-type situation, replete with roadside and suicide bombers, assassinations and other forms of terrorist and insurgent-type activities," the report said.

A spokesman for the Islamists, Abdirahin Ali Muudey, denied receiving aid from outside Somalia. "There is not any country (that) supports us with military equipment," he said. "All those countries, especially Syria and Iran—even our officials have never visited those countries in their life."

As face-to-face talks between the Islamists and the interim government have fallen apart, Islamist forces have moved to within 20 miles of Baidoa, where thousands of Ethiopian troops are believed to be waiting. Analysts say recent heavy rains, which have made dirt roads impassable, may be the only thing stalling the outbreak of major hostilities.

The Bush administration, led by the State Department's top Africa official, Jendayi Frazer, has been pushing for the deployment of a multinational African peacekeeping force. But the U.N. report warns that inserting foreign troops could actually provoke a military confrontation.

A war would likely involve fighting near Baidoa, as well as near the Ethiopia-Somalia border, 150 miles to Baidoa's northwest. Analysts note that much of southern Ethiopia's population is ethnic Somali, and the Islamists might be able to count on support from Somali rebel groups in Ethiopia.

There also are reports that the Islamists have been amassing anti-aircraft weaponry, an indication that they expect Ethiopia to use jet aircraft to bomb targets in Mogadishu, including the airport and seaport.

If hostilities drag on, fighting could spill over into Kenya, which has its own population of disaffected ethnic Somalis as well as Islamic extremist groups operating along the coastline. Analysts believe that a protracted conflict could draw those groups to the Islamists' side.

Over the weekend, another front appeared to open up several hundred miles north, near the key semi-autonomous region of Puntland, home to a seaport that provides the Baidoa-based government's only revenue other than foreign contributions. Islamist forces battled fighters loyal to the government and to former warlord Abdi Qaybdid, capturing a town and reportedly seizing several machine-gun-mounted pickups, known as "technicals."

"There are all these different friction points," said Mario Raffaelli, Italy's special envoy to Somalia. "Any one of them can be the starting point for a fight."

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(McClatchy special correspondent Mahad Elmi contributed to this report from Mogadishu, Somalia.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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