JOHN YDSTIE, host: In Somalia, division and conflict remain a part of everyday life - so does hunger. And as the U.S. and other donors scramble to help Somalis survive a famine, some experts see an opportunity of sorts. Drought in the Horn of Africa, they say, seems to draining an Islamist militia of resources, limiting its ability to wreak havoc. If that's so, this might be a time not only to feed the people of Somalia but to help them end the conflict and build a more stable state. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: When administration officials talk about the drought in the Horn of Africa, they are quick to point out that famine was declared only in Somalia, and only in parts of the country controlled by al- Shabaab. It's an Islamist militia, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says has been acting in un-Islamic ways.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON: The terrorist group al-Shabaab has prevented humanitarian assistance from coming in; it has killed and threatened aid workers. There are also credible reports that al-Shabaab is preventing desperate Somalis from leaving the areas under its control.

KELEMEN: Under pressure from African union troops, al-Shabaab did pull out of most of Mogadishu. And the U.N. special envoy for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, told reporters recently that al-Shabaab has fractured.

AUGUSTINE MAHIGA: It may regroup. It may melt into the population. It may go in what they are worst at doing - terrorist tactics. This cannot be ruled out.

KELEMEN: But for now, he says al-Shabaab is being starved of other financial support. They've lost control of a major market where they tax shopkeepers. In fact, the group's economic base seems to have been undercut by the drought, according to J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Atlantic Council here in Washington.

J. PETER PHAM: The whole structure collapsed. You can't tax people on agriculture when they're not growing anything, when people are running away looking for food. Shops empty, markets closed - so their whole structure collapsed in an instant.

KELEMEN: So, as awkward as it is to say that a famine provides a moment of opportunity, Pham thinks this is a time to exploit the divisions in the al-Shabaab movement. The trouble is, he says, that the transitional government in Mogadishu is corrupt and ineffective.

PHAM: There is a narrow window of opportunity right now if the international community were to engage local communities, local leaders to assist them, strengthen them while Shabaab is weak. Otherwise, I think eventually Shabaab will recover, and if the only thing on the table is the transitional federal government, then I don't think it will be long before Shabaab is back in real strength.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has eased restrictions on aid workers hoping to reach those communities in al-Shabaab-controlled parts of the country. Administration officials say aid groups won't be prosecuted if some money inadvertently falls into the hands of al-Shabaab. Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College says, as aid goes in diversion is unavoidable, but he doesn't think al-Shabaab will benefit much.

KEN MENKHAUS: They are presiding over the famine and I think in that particular circumstance if aid agencies can find ways to negotiate space and they're anxious about this, but they think they can do it through local intermediaries, I think it will work against Shabaab. It will demonstrate that others can deliver the goods when they cannot.

KELEMEN: But he too says a lot depends on what the transitional federal government in Mogadishu does - if it can really govern and stop its paramilitary forces from stealing food aid.

MENKHAUS: The famine may have jolted both Somalis and the international community into finally saying we really need a permanent resolution to this crisis.

KELEMEN: And he says U.S. policymakers are thinking about their diplomatic strategy for the region, even as they scramble to meet the urgent humanitarian needs in Somalia. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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