The War for the Horn of Africa

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In a lightning advance, Ethiopian troops have fought Somalia's Islamist militias to within 50 miles of the Somali capital Mogadishu and declared they are preparing for a final attack on the city. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said 1,000 people have been killed and 3,000 wounded. The United Nations says 35,000 refugees have crossed into Kenya to escape the fighting and has suspended aid to 2 million Somalis. It has warned of a bloodbath should Ethiopia try to occupy the capital, and humanitarian agencies have called for a ceasefire. But the U.S. has signaled its tacit support for the offensive, and while it is not providing overt military support, it has long trained Ethiopian troops and is likely to be passing them intelligence and aerial surveillance. Other Western and African nations — including the African Union — have either backed Ethiopia or kept silent. The reason? The fighting is about more than control of an obscure part of eastern Africa.

For much of the time since the overthrow of President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, Mogadishu and much of Somalia has been ruled by clan-based warlords who laid waste the country and turned Mogadishu into an anarchic, continuous battlefield. More than 100,000 people died in the fighting in 1991-92, and when the U.N. launched a massive relief operation in April 1992, the U.S. was drawn into the conflict — at first guarding the relief, then delivering it, then attacking the warlords that were stealing it. In October 1993, in events depicted in the film Black Hawk Down, Somali militiamen shot down a Blackhawk helicopter over Mogadishu and 18 U.S. servicemen were killed in the crash and subsequent rescue attempt. After gruesome scenes of the bodies of some American servicemen being stripped and paraded through the streets of the city were flashed around the world, the U.S. withdrew from Somalia by March 1994.

With that background, the world — and the U.S. in particular — was never going to forget Somalia easily. As the only officially Christian country in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has long been wary of Somalia's Islamic militias, which it describes as a "regional menace." (While it is officially Christian, Ethiopia has a population that is about half Muslim.) It shares that anti-Islamist position with the U.S., particularly since August 1998 when simultaneous suicide bombings destroyed the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing more than 200 people. The ringleaders were tracked to Somalia, and an Islamist attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya in November 2002 was also said to have been planned by the same group.

Ethiopia and the U.S. — whose close relationship has long included U.S. training for Ethiopian troops inside Ethiopia — back a transitional Somali government formed in October 2004 after talks between warlords and civilian leaders. Until now, that government has won international recognition, but never exercised real power and has been confined to the small southern Somali town of Baidoa. Both the U.S. and Ethiopia have backed the warlords as well. The exact nature of those relations have never been made public, but an indication of their value to the U.S. came in March 2003, when warlord Mohammed Dhere captured one of the suspects in the east Africa bombings and handed him over to the U.S.

The U.S. support for the corrupt, violent and self-serving warlords alienated many Somalis — and some analysts argue actually strengthened the popularity of the Islamists, enabling Somalia's top Islamic body, the Council of Islamic Courts, to take over Mogadishu and expel the warlords in June. The arrival of Islamist rule in Mogadishu, and the initial imposition of law and order that accompanied it, was widely welcomed on the war-torn streets of the capital. As Ethiopian troops advanced toward them, thousands of supporters of the Courts were reported to have staged rallies in Mogadishu. The Islamists are are also backed by Eritrea, the predominantly Muslim nation on the Red Sea coast that has been a historic enemy of Ethiopia. Eritrea has sent more than 2,000 troops to support the Council of Islamic Courts, according to the U.N.

Somalia's fate is attracting international attention because of its link to the war against terror. After dismissing comparisons to the Taliban when they took over the Somali capital this summer, the Islamic Courts promptly set about emulating them. Clerics threatened death to those who did not pray five times a day and enforced strict dress codes while Courts leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys declared holy war on Ethiopia, whose eastern parts he claimed belonged to a greater Somalia, along with northeastern Kenya and Djibouti, home to a U.S. base. As TIME reported earlier this year As TIME reported earlier this year, the Courts also sent fighters to Lebanon in the summer to help Hizbollah fight Israel, and in return received weapons from Syria and Iran. The Courts even won backing from Osama bin Laden, who urged foreign jihadis to flock to Somalia to open up a third front in the war against America — a call the U.N. reported had been answered by hundreds of Pakistanis, Yemenis, Syrians, Libyans and Chechens.

Sheikh Hassan has now called on all Islamist forces to fall back to Mogadishu and prepare for a long war against the invaders. Whether that materializes remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the strife-torn Horn is more divided today than ever — and is increasingly the arena for an international war between the forces of radical Islam, and the West and its allies.