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The United States has been carefully avoiding any criticism of Ethiopia's military involvement in Somalia. All the State Department has said is that it hopes Ethiopia exercises restraint.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has this report on how U.S. policy has evolved.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Somalia has been a back-burner issue for the U.S. ever since Blackhawk Down, a disastrous end to a U.S.-led humanitarian intervention. That's according to David Shinn, a professor at George Washington University and a former State Department coordinator on Somalia.

Professor DAVID SHINN (George Washington University): You have had since March '94 until the 9/11 attacks on the United States an abandonment of U.S. interest in Somalia.

KELEMEN: After 9/11, terrorism experts began focusing on Somalia again because it has been a failed state for so long and because the U.S. believe that three suspects from the U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa were hiding out in Mogadishu.

The U.S. showed little enthusiasm for the weak transitional government, which was set up two years ago and which never controlled the Somali capital. Alex de Waal of the Social Science Research Council says the U.S. had a two-track policy.

Mr. ALEX DE WAAL (Social Science Research Council): One was to support the transitional federal government. Another was a much narrow, more targeted track, which was to sponsor anybody who labeled themselves and who is identified by the Pentagon as an enemy of terrorism.

KELEMEN: That meant supporting some disreputable warlords in Mogadishu who he says eventually drove Somalis right into the hands of the Islamic Courts Union, which was promising more law and order. And other Somali watcher, Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College, puts it this way.

Dr. KEN MENKAUS (Davidson College): The United States ended up with egg on its face in the first half of 2006. And the initiative actually had the exact opposite result of what was intended. Now, we had Islamists in control of the entire city, and then most of south central Somalia.

KELEMEN: That was back in June, and Menkhaus says the U.S. tried to correct its policy. Diplomats took some tentative steps to talk to more moderate forces in the Islamic Courts Union. But again, U.S. policy shifted. State Department officials argued that the top leadership of the Islamic Courts were radical Jihadis. And they said Ethiopia had legitimate security concerns because of the Islamist claims on Ethiopian territory.

Alex De Waal says this latest U.S. policy could backfire again.

Mr. DE WAAL: It is a huge gamble by the U.S. to give a green light to the Ethiopians. I think what's required now is restraint, wisdom, moderation and talking. However, in the flush of what appears to be a relatively easy military victory by the Ethiopian, it'll be very, very tempting for the Ethiopians and the U.S. to say this problem can be solved by force. It can't be solved by force.

KELEMEN: The longer Ethiopia stays in Somalia, De Waal says, the more the transitional federal government will lose credibility among Somalis. Ken Menkhaus says there is another risk to a protracted conflict.

Dr. MENKHAUS: The danger for Ethiopia and for the United States and for the whole region is that a hard core group of Islamists are going to continue the fight, but they're going to fight in a symmetrical war, involving suicide car bombings, assassinations, terrorist attacks.

KELEMEN: In other words, exactly what the U.S. has been trying to prevent. State Department officials say they are still hoping to get African peacekeepers into Somalia to give Ethiopia reason to leave. So far though, only Uganda has offered troops, and experts doubt a credible peacekeeping force can be assembled quickly enough.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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