Monday, September 25, 2006

Somalia: Islamists pacify Mogadishu; setbacks in Kismayo

It may be premature to pronounce on 'peace returning to Mogadishu', but the recent gains in territory by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC--yes, they're on the US terrorist list) are offering enough stability for local commerce and schooling to resume at a level unseen in years. Primary schools are mixed gender, and soccer is allowed--not what anyone expected from the UIC, who were tagged with the Taliban label early on.

Yet extremist elements are still prevalent in areas under UIC control. Witness the murder of an Italian nun in a Mog hospital last week, an apparent retaliation for the Pope's citation of a 1500 year-old quote about Islam.

Yesterday the NY Times covered life under the UIC:

"... It is hard to imagine that this is Mogadishu, the same Mogadishu of “Black Hawk Down,” and clan against clan and 15 years of anarchy. But over the past three months, the Islamists in control here have defied international expectations — in many ways. Not only have they pacified one of the most dangerous cities in the world, they also seem to have moderated their message."

“Nobody knows where we’re headed,” said Ahmed Mohammed Ali, chairman of a Mogadishu human rights organization. But, he added, the Islamists “pacified this place and brought the clans together. Whatever you think about them,” he said, “you can’t overlook that.”

This morning in Kismayo, the second largest city about 500km south of Mog, UIC troops entered and took the town unopposed. Civilians gathered to welcome their arrival, but well-armed local khat traders organized a protest, which turned violent.

UIC plans to ban the lucrative khat trade, and the daily supply flights from Nairobi that keep the population munching on the bitter green twigs. The US military tried to shut down the khat trade when they arrived in 1992 (setting fire to tons of the stuff) and triggered the hatred of Somalis that would ultimately drive them from the country in shame. Perhaps the Islamists will offer some sort of compromise.

Also this morning, dozens of trucks carrying Ethiopian troops rolled across the border towards Baidoa, the residence in exile for the beleaguered Somali President who suffered an assassination attempt last week. I'm very curious to see how the region would respond a possible confrontation between Ethiopian troops and the local Islamists. My Somali taxi drivers here in Washington are already seething with rage at the audacity of their Ethiopian neighbors.

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