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This week’s Somalia update

The last port in southern Somalia uncontrolled by the Union of Islamic Courts was Kismaayo, close to the Kenyan border. UIC forces took control of the city without violence on Monday and then faced protests from some residents – some protesters were detained, and there are conflicting reports on whether any were harmed.
Kismaayo is strategically important both because it’s a major town and because it was the last logical place to stage a sea landing of forces opposed to the UIC… or AU peacekeepers, as the interim government has requested.

Reports continue to stream in that Ethiopia is sending troops to reinforce Baidoa, the only city the provisional government continues to hold. Ethiopia continues to deny any presence in Somalia, despite widespread reports of more than fifty armored vehicles crossing the border. While Ethiopia denies a presence on the ground, they’re making noises about the presence of “terrorists” on their border, warning of an al-Qaeda foothold in Somalia.

Sara Kuepfer, writing at the International Relations and Security Network has a useful commentary, warning that it’s a mistake to take Ethiopia’s “anti-terror” claims at face value:

Clearly, the international community would be wrong to rely on Ethiopia to counter the Islamist threat in Somalia. Instead, it should enable the deployment of African Union peacekeepers and support the ongoing peace talks between the UIC and the Somali interim government.

UIC security chief Sheik Yusuf Indahaadde has described Ethiopia’s actions as a declaration of war and has warned that “the consequences of insecurity created by Ethiopia will spread to neighbouring countries and to East Africa as a whole.”

Kenya is already feeling some of these consequences, reporting an increasing stream of refugees into northeastern Kenya, including 3,400 in a recent week. Many of the refugees are coming from Kismaayo and Baidoa, which may indicate a desire to leave the city before it falls.

For the provisional government to have a prayer of holding Baidoa, the UN Security Council would need to lift an arms embargo long in place over the nation, allowing the forces in Baidoa to re-arm. This would need to be supported by AU peacekeepers – already stretched thin in Darfur – and might provoke a harsh counter-reaction from UIC forces, who don’t seem to have any problems obtaining arms. Kenya is pushing to lift the embargo – so far, the US seems unwilling to consider lifting it.

This weekend, the New York Times picked up a meme that’s made the rounds of the press and bloggers watching Somalia – surprise that the UIC-controlled parts of Somalia are much safer than they were months before, and that the brand of Sharia imposed hasn’t resembled the Taliban’s Afghanistan.

Islamic leaders are operating almost in campaign mode, organizing street cleanups, visiting hospitals, overseeing a mini building boom and recruiting elderly policemen to don faded uniforms they have not worn for years and return to work. Beyond that, they sent a letter this week to the United Nations Security Council pledging to support democratic rule.

Maybe this is just smooth talk. Or premature signs that could prove misleading. Hard-core elements still operate here, including militiamen who drive around with black scarves and black flags and shoot people for watching Hollywood movies. Young men like them were believed to have killed an Italian nun at a Mogadishu hospital last Sunday, apparently in retaliation for Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on Islam.

But the Islamist leaders say they are rogue elements who will be punished, and they have reopened some movie theaters and issued decrees emphasizing tolerance. Whether they live up to those promises seems to hinge on whether they can, or even want to, rein in the militant groups that helped propel them to power.