Murk of War

To many Somalis, history is repeating itself. They feel that the United States has once again invaded their country, albeit with a proxy force from Ethiopia, occupying most of the south and central part of it; has bombed members of the former government as they fled last Monday, then has followed that up with helicopter-gunship attacks as well as AC-130 aerial assaults on a daily basis since. After that, they say, Washington deployed American commandos to hunt down remnants of Islamic hard-liners, both from the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower offshore, and across the land border from Kenya in the south.

Not all of this is true. But there's enough of a kernel of truth in this account to make the rest believable—and plenty of murkiness to make almost any version of U.S. involvement in the troubled African nation plausible at this point. The Eisenhower is indeed off Somalia's coast, and the Pentagon has confirmed that it launched a single airstrike against Al Qaeda targets in the far south of the country. Ethiopia has taken control of much of Somalia, its historic enemy, in an invasion apparently encouraged by the United States, and since applauded by it. The Islamic Courts Union, a hard-line group led by some pro-Al Qaeda elements, gave up Mogadishu without a fight late last month as Ethiopia marched in and installed the U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), a Somali group with little popular support in its own country, in the capital for the first time.

But beyond those facts, it really depends whom you believe. Washington says it has no commandos on the ground—although some U.S. news organizations are reporting they are there, quoting Washington sources. Some Somali officials with the TFG, however, openly boast that U.S. ground forces are in Somalia, while others stick to the party line and flatly deny it. And in a telephone interview today from Mogadishu with NEWSWEEK, the TFG's interior minister, Hussein Aidid, confirmed that U.S. ground forces were involved in the mop-up in southern Somalia.

Somalis reached by NEWSWEEK in the area, and others who returned from there to the port of Kismayo, report repeated U.S. airstrikes against targets in the Ras Kamboni island area of the country's south, near the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean. Some say the victims are innocent civilians, others claim Al Qaeda elements of the court have been cut down in full flight. Somali officials have even said the U.S. air raids killed one of the FBI's most wanted terrorists, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Comoran native wanted for masterminding the Al Qaeda bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 (reward: $5 million); U.S. officials denied that was true, with one unnamed official telling Reuters that the airstrike had killed up to 10 suspected Al Qaeda targets but missed three of its most wanted suspects.

The area itself, the Lower Juba region, is heavily forested and in recent months has been severely inundated by record floods, making most roads impassable. Kismayo, the only large town in the area, was the last to fall to the Ethiopian Army's advance. The area is so difficult that aid agencies haven't been able to reach there to investigate reports of Rift Valley Fever, a deadly hemorrhagic fever. No journalists have been able to travel independently to the area, and Kenyan officials have cordoned off their frontier, as well, to prevent fleeing Islamists from seeking refuge there. The island of Ras Kamboni, just off the Lower Juba coast, was a known haunt of Mohammed, and a reputed Al Qaeda training area, and it's the location of the one airstrike the United States did acknowledge.

Villagers reached by telephone and radio on Ras Kamboni, four other small islands nearby, and neighboring mainland villages, said that U.S. airstrikes by gunships were continuing as recently as Wednesday of this week. In Burgabo village, on the mainland, village chairman Ali Bulaale Adan said Islamic hard-liners had been in the area three days before the bombing but were gone by the time the U.S. airstrikes occurred. In nearby Butiye village, Watira Suldan Farah, a mother of five children, said that "at least 35 people were killed in Butiye [on Tuesday and Wednesday], but all the people ran from the area." She continued: "It was a white big plane with a black tail that was raiding, people were saying it was [an] AC-130, and it was doing very awful actions." Hussein Tarabi, an old man who lost 30 cattle in one gunship strike said, "We are sad, because we lost all our belongings including the cows, camel and goats. We are not Islamist militia, but we are the victims, we ask the U.S. government to stop the genocide and give us compensation." These and numerous similar reports, including many reports of casualties of both civilians and, more often, cattle, were impossible to confirm.

Reached by telephone in Mogadishu, Hussein Aidid, Somalia's current minister of interior, was forthright about acknowledging the U.S. presence in his country. "The U.S. had the capacity, and we didn't have the capacity, so they have come to help Ethiopian and TFG forces," Aidid said. "The Bush administration policy is to lead the war on terror. When their ground forces complete their mission in the south, they will leave. It will not take a long time, but it will take a couple of weeks." For Aidid, it's an ironic twist in fate. His late father was Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the warlord whose militiamen fought U.S. troops in Mogadishu at the time of the "Black Hawk Down" incident in 1993, when a ferocious battle led to the deaths of 18 American servicemen. More ironic still, Aidid fils himself was once a U.S. Marine who was part of Operation Restore Hope, serving in Mogadishu for the first 90 days of the U.S. mission in Somalia. He has joint U.S.-Somali citizenship. Aidid says if his father were alive today, he would heartily approve of the U.S. intervention in Somalia. "But he would never have allowed Al Qaeda to have these bases in Somalia, if he were alive they wouldn't have been able to buy a single rifle."

Aidid wouldn’t say how many U.S. forces were on the ground in Somalia but said they were part of a carrier-based task force and may also include some of the 1,700 U.S. troops stationed in Djibouti, the port city-state on the Horn of Africa. "The U.S. already knows about Somalia now, and they know what they are doing," he said.

The Islamic Courts Union swept to power early last year in Somalia, taking one town after another on a wave of revulsion by Somalis against the power of warlords like Aidid, who had divided the country and even its towns into heavily armed, largely lawless fiefdoms. The CIA secretly began financing some of those warlords, helping to form a front against the Islamists, but that only made them more popular in many quarters. The TFG, which brought some of the warlords and other factions into a government with international recognition but little popularity, was reduced to ruling only a small area around the provincial capital of Baidoa, surrounded by the ICU. Ethiopia threatened to intervene if Baidoa were attacked, but U.S. officials urged restraint. The Courts themselves were a mixed group, including some hard-line, pro-Al Qaeda elements but also many moderates, businessmen and clan elders. But its chairman and spiritual leader, Hussein Aweys, made no secret of his admiration of Osama bin Laden .

On Dec. 14, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Fraser made a speech condemning the ICU as Al Qaeda-controlled, a move widely interpreted as encouragement to Ethiopia to invade the country, which it did on Dec. 20, less than a week later. "That was the green light the Ethiopians needed," says John Prendergast, Africa director for the International Crisis Group. In 10 days, Ethiopia, which has the strongest military in the Horn, had subdued all of the south and central parts of Somalia (the north is controlled by the semiautonomous authorities of Puntland and Somaliland), and Courts authority had collapsed completely. "The Islamic Courts weren't routed," Prendergast says, "they just tactically withdrew. Why would these guys sacrifice thousands of their fighters when they could just go underground. The TFG has almost no military muscle of its own, it relies almost entirely on Ethiopia and a few warlords like Aidid." Once Ethiopia pulls out, the Courts will be in a position to try to undermine the TFG unless it broadens its base to include some of the powerful clans that previously supported the Islamic Courts—a move it has so far not made. "None of the factions in Somalia had the capacity to fight the terrorists without the joint operation with Ethiopia and the joint operation with the United States," Aidid said.

Ethiopian officials insist they'll leave Somalia soon, and most analysts don't expect them to undertake a long and messy occupation; popular feeling against them in Mogadishu especially runs very high, and there are nearly daily hit-and-run attacks on their troops and the TFG. When the TFG parliament met in Baidoa today, it couldn't even agree on a martial-law measure outlawing carrying arms—and police had to be called to restore order among angry legislators. As with the Americans in Iraq, the Ethiopians may find that invading and subduing the country is a lot easier than leaving it in one piece.