Sorting Out the Situation in Somalia

International diplomats confront the reality that miltant Islamists have gained control of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. Fears of a Taliban-like regime are offset by hopes for cooperation from moderate elements of the Islamic Courts Union.

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Today in Somalia, a leader of the Islamic that now controls Mogadishu says that Ethiopian troops have crossed the border and may intend to take the capital. This is the latest twist in a story that has befuddled international diplomats. The Islamic Courts Union seized Mogadishu from warlords almost two weeks ago, but no one knows yet whether they intend to a Taliban-style rule or whether the West can work with them to create order in a lawless nation. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on this week's diplomatic brainstorming.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer says she gathered European, African and U.N. officials to form a contact group to coordinate policies and share information about the Islamic Courts Union, which has sent two letters to the U.S.

Ms. JENDAYI FRAZER (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Africa): You certainly can't make a judgment based on two letters. They're signaling to us their intent to work in the context of the priorities set by the international community; that is, preventing terrorism, supporting stability, working with the transitional federal institutions, but we will have to make a true judgment by their actual actions.

KELEMEN: The fact that fighters loyal to the Islamic Courts Union have continued to extend control over much of Southern Somalia has made Omar Jamal nervous. He's the director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center and believes the militias want a Taliban-style regime.

Mr. OMAR JAMAL (Executive Director, Somali Justice Advocacy Center): They will not be happy anything shorter than that, because that is the purpose of their movement is to bring about a very draconian Sharia law in the country.

KELEMEN: But former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen says the West should be wary of self-fulfilling prophecies. He says the new U.S.-led contact group needs to test the Islamic Courts Union.

Mr. HERMAN COHEN (Ex-Assistant Secretary of State, Africa): They say they don't want to harbor terrorists; well, let's go in and look. They say they want democracy; well, let's go in and help them have democracy.

KELEMEN: The contact group has urged the Islamic Courts Union to talk with Somalia's weak but internationally backed transitional government. Cohen says the union may not stay united too long, given longstanding clan rivalries.

Mr. COHEN: Clans in Somalia have a history of not getting along very well for very long. I'm amazed that they've gotten along so well in getting rid of the warlords, and we know there're conflicting views there between extreme Sharia and moderate Sharia. We should be in there, and the international community, to support the moderates.

KELEMEN: Cohen even suggested flying in an aid shipment into Mogadishu, which is widely believed to be far safer now with the warlords out of the picture. Analysts say the only good news in this very fluid situation is that the U.S. is now promising to do more to build up institutions rather than just using warlords as proxies to hunt for suspected terrorists. The U.S. is widely believed to have been funneling money to the warlords. Asked about that this week, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said he would have advised supporting warlords, who he says terrorize Somalis.

Secretary General KOFI ANNAN (U.N.): I suspect most Somalis, except those who have vested interests, will say good riddance.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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