News your connection to The Boston Globe

Getting Ethiopia out of Somalia

THE UNITED Nations' Office for Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs in Somalia reported that the recent clashes between Ethiopian troops and Somali resistance groups killed more than 1,000 civilians and displaced more than 350,000 residents of Mogadishu. The European Union has reacted to this carnage and it is investigating whether war crimes were committed by the Ethiopian forces and Somali government militias. The EU argues that forces intentionally targeted civilian areas.

The United States, however, is on a different page. When the Union of Islamic Courts defeated the US-backed warlords, the Bush administration -- using the war on terrorism as justiciation -- supported the Ethiopian occupation, arguing that the Islamists were an emerging threat to the US interests.

But approaching the complex and multilayered Somali conflict in this simplistic way and linking it to the war on terror was a mistake.

The United States inadvertently stepped into a local, tribal, and regional political quagmire.

The resistance groups -- clans, business groups, and Islamists -- are challenging the occupying Ethiopian troops and the warlord-government in a variety of ways.

Recent events in Mogadishu and Kismayo indicate that ignoring the grievances of stakeholders in Somalia will only perpetuate the conflict.

The Somali conflict has multiple causes. Competition for power and resources, repression of the military regime, colonial legacy, availability of weapons, widespread atrocities during the civil war, and politicized clan identity have played roles in the initiation and escalation of the conflict. Moreover, Ethiopia, through its proxy warlords, was the principal spoiler of the Somali peace processes and undermined previous efforts, including the Cairo Peace Conference in 1997 and the Arta Peace Process in 2000 .

Ethiopia has its own geopolitical interests in the region. Ethiopia and Somalia have had territorial disputes over the Ogaden region. Moreover, Ethiopia is landlocked while Somalia has a long coastline. Therefore, from the Somali perspective, Ethiopia wants to balkanize Somalia into small clan-based regions in order to get access to a sea corridor.

The Addis Ababa regime also used the Somalia occupation as a way of getting closer to Washington. Prior to this event, the State Department's reports criticized Ethiopia's human rights record and members of Congress condemned it. For Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the Somalia war, even though it cost him militarily and politically, was a great opportunity to regain the lost American support following his election fiasco in late 2005.

The United States has not been a disinterested partner; it has been heavily involved in the Somali conflict. Since 9/11, Washington argued that Somalia's collapsed state constituted a threat to its vital interests in the region.

The Bush administration closed Al-Barakaat -- the largest telecommunication company and bank, though the investigations of the 9/11 Commission could not establish any link to terrorism. It also added about 20 Somali individuals and organizations to its terrorist list. The United States and Ethiopia collaborated to destroy the UIC, a homegrown popular Islamist movement that ruled southern Somalia the later part of 2006.

The United States should revisit its strategy in Somalia. Somalis are determined to resist the Ethiopian occupation and attempts to rescue the warlord-government and impose it on the people have backfired. Despite the international community's calls for inclusive government, the leadership in Baidoa decided to exclude even more individuals and groups -- evidence that there is neither the will nor the political competence on the part of these warlords.

Since the United States was a partner with Ethiopia, it is the only country that can order Ethiopia to leave Somalia. Ethiopian troops are not filling a security vacuum; they are a source of destabilization. Ethiopian occupation must end as soon as possible.

The peoples of Liberia and Sierra Leone experienced meaningful peace when Charles Taylor, Liberia's warlord president, and Foday Sankoh, Sierra Leone's warlord , were removed from the peace process. Somalia is no different. Rewarding warlords will not bring peace to the Somali people. These individuals committed heinous crimes and they are not interested in peace or democracy -- all of the warlords that UIC expelled are back. The United States should help in establishing a commission of international inquiry that investigates the Somalia war crimes.

As State Department officials stated many times, the Bush administration understands the need for a genuine peace process in Somalia. But it has to act. Instead of endorsing the so-called congress in Mogadishu -- a convention for the Ethiopian proxies -- Washington should encourage and support Saudi Arabia's proposed peace conference.

The Saudi g overnment has helped mediate similar conflicts in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Moreover, most Somalis consider it a neutral country and it has a close relationship with Washington. It can also influence the Islamist groups as they are indispensable for ending the conflict.

The war on terrorism has narrow focus and therefore it has to be separated from Ethiopia's geopolitical interests and Somali warlords' human rights atrocities. Associating with these two hated actors will further alienate the Somali people, on whose support, as the International Crisis Group said, the success of the war on terror policy will depend in the long run.

The United can play a leading and constructive role in building durable peace in Somalia if it identifies with the aspirations of the Somali people: that is, removing the Ethiopians, controlling the warlords, and initiating a genuine Somali-owned peace process.

Afyare Abdi Elmi is a doctoral candidate at the University of Alberta, specializing in international relations and peace education.