Mogadishu may fall within 24 hours
By Jeffrey Gettleman
December 27, 2006

Islamist fighters at Mogadishu Airport on Monday
Islamist fighters at Mogadishu Airport on Monday (Reuters/Shabelle Media)
NAIROBI, Kenya - The Islamist forces once in control of much of Somalia are crumbling faster than anyone expected and beat a hasty retreat back to their stronghold in Mogadishu, Somalia’s battle-scarred capital, on Tuesday.

By dawn, Buurhakaba, a large inland town, had fallen to the Islamists’ rivals, along with nearby Dinsoor and Bulo Burti, where just a few weeks ago the clerics in charge were threatening to behead people who did not pray five times a day.

The Islamist fighters, who had seemed invincible after taking Mogadishu from the city’s warlords in June, now seem powerless to stop the steady advance of the internationally recognized transitional government and the Ethiopian forces that are backing it.

By nightfall, the transitional government’s troops were 50 miles from Mogadishu, calling for the Islamists to surrender. The Islamist leaders refused, saying they would take their fight “everywhere,” possibly a threat to unleash guerrilla tactics and suicide bombers, which they have already used.

The fast-moving developments seemed to confirm what United Nations officials and witnesses in Somalia have been saying since the fighting erupted a week ago: that the teenage troops of the Islamists, however religiously inspired, were no match for the better-trained Ethiopian-backed force, with its tanks and fighter jets.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, said Tuesday that his soldiers and their Somali allies had “broken the back” of the Islamists and killed more than 1,000 fighters, though United Nations officials have put the toll substantially below that.

But the conflict is hardly over. Thousands of people continue to march through the streets of Mogadishu, rallying for the Islamists, and analysts are unanimous that an Ethiopian occupation of Mogadishu, a city thick with weapons and xenophobia, could become a bloodbath.

In Baidoa, the seat of the transitional government, leaders said they were planning to take the capital, where they had been afraid to work until now.

“It’s just a matter of time,” said Hussein Saylan, chief of the transitional cabinet, from a command center where radios crackled in the background. “We’re moving swiftly toward Mogadishu, and the Islamists are panicking. We’re finishing them off as we go.”

Witnesses said Ethiopian fighter jets and helicopter gunships fired missiles at the retreating Islamists in pickup trucks — easy targets in the open desert.

In Mogadishu, the Islamists began fortifying the airport, radio station and other important buildings, preparing for a siege. Shopkeepers emptied their stores. Some families fled their homes and drove off with tents and water jugs in the back of their cars.

Western intelligence officials said soldiers from Eritrea were furiously distributing antiaircraft missiles to the Islamists, and residents in Mogadishu said they had already heard them being test fired. According to United Nations officials, thousands of fighters from Eritrea, Yemen, Syria and Libya have streamed into Somalia to wage a holy war against Ethiopia, a country with a long Christian history that today is about half Muslim.

Ethiopia and Eritrea are bitter enemies, having recently fought a costly border war that is still unresolved.

On Tuesday, Mr. Meles said, “The only forces we are pursuing are Eritreans who are hiding behind the skirts of Somali women.”

Though diplomats in Africa have expressed concerns about the conflict in Somalia exploding into a wider regional war, most have been noticeably silent about Ethiopia’s aggressive tactics. Ethiopian officials have said they sided with the transitional government because Somalia’s Islamist movement was a regional menace.

Patrick Mazimhaka, a high-ranking African Union official, told the BBC that Ethiopia was within its rights to strike.

“It is up to every country to judge the measure of the threat to its own sovereignty,” he said.

American officials have given Ethiopia, one its closest allies in Africa, their tacit approval to do what is necessary to neutralize the Islamists, whom American intelligence agents have accused of sheltering terrorists with Al Qaeda. But American officials have asked Ethiopia to avoid strikes that could kill large numbers of civilians, and so far Ethiopia seems to be cooperating.

On Tuesday, analysts in Nairobi said American surveillance planes were funneling battlefield intelligence to Ethiopian forces.

Maj. Kelley Thibodeau, spokeswoman for the task force of American military personnel based in nearby Djibouti, said she was “not at liberty to discuss” the matter.

Though there are more than 100 American soldiers training Ethiopian troops, Major Thibodeau said: “Officially, we haven’t put anybody in Somalia. The Americans don’t go forward with the Ethiopians. They are training Ethiopians in Ethiopia.”

As the Ethiopian-backed forces continued their rout, it seemed that the Islamists might have overplayed their hand. Just a few months ago, the Islamists were the most powerful force in Somalia and popular in many areas for restoring order after 15 years of anarchy. The transitional government, an assortment of clan elders and former warlords, had been marooned in Baidoa, too weak to extend its authority beyond the city limits. Instead, it had been urging the Islamists to return to peace talks to discuss sharing power.

But all that changed last Wednesday at dawn, when the Islamists attacked Baidoa from two directions. Witnesses said waves of young fighters were summarily mowed down by the more experienced Ethiopian-backed troops. Then on Saturday, the Islamists announced that Somalia was open to Muslim fighters across the world who wanted to wage a jihad against Ethiopia.

The next day, Ethiopia struck, its military pushing deep into Somalia to begin wiping out the Islamist forces.

“Our entire defense system was instantly overrun,” said Ibrahim Diris, a medic for the Islamist forces who narrowly escaped capture in Buurhakaba. “They attacked us with tanks, planes, helicopters and infantry. Thank God they spared the ambulances.”

The question now is whether Ethiopian forces will try to seize Mogadishu.

At the United Nations on Tuesday, the special envoy for Somalia, François Lonseny Fall, urged the Security Council to call for a cease-fire, saying that although the interim government’s forces were advancing toward Mogadishu, they were “still facing stiff resistance” in several areas. Speaking at an emergency session, he said he feared that continuing violence could have “serious consequences” for the entire region.

Ethiopia’s deputy foreign minister, Tekeda Alemu, said taking Mogadishu was not part of the plan.

“We are a poor country and we know that what we can accomplish is limited,” he said. “We don’t want to go into Mogadishu. We want the two sides to talk.”

But neither side seemed ready to negotiate. “The war is entering a new phase,” said Sheik Sharif Ahmed, a top Islamist leader. “We will fight Ethiopia for a long, long time and we expect the war to go everywhere.”

The toll is piling up. At Benadir hospital in Mogadishu, a crowd of women pushed at the gates to see wounded sons and husbands. Some women threw stones at the Islamist commanders and shouted, “Fight your own holy war!”

Yussuf Maxamuud and Mohammed Ibrahim contributed reporting from Mogadishu, and Elissa Gootman from the United Nations.

(Source: The New York Times; Dec 27, 2006)