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Friday, July 28, 2006

War Brewing Between Ethiopia and Somalia's Islamic Courts Union?

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

Since capturing Mogadishu last month, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia has moved in an increasingly radical direction. This is reflected both in their leadership choices and also their implementation of Taliban-like Islamic law. Beyond that, the ICU is aggressively expanding its power. It recently surrounded the southern Somali city of Baidoa, where the largely powerless interim Somali government is holed up.

On Monday, Time's website reported Ethiopia's concerns over the ICU's stance toward Baidoa:

The Islamic Courts Union says it will not attack the interim government, which is mostly secular in outlook, but the government’s closest ally, Ethiopia, is worried enough to be massing troops to take on the Islamic forces itself. The Islamists and Somali journalists say that Ethiopia has already sent troops over the border, a claim Ethiopia denies. But there is no doubting Ethiopia's intentions. “We will use all means at our disposal to crush the Islamist group if they attempt to attack Baidoa,” Ethiopian Information Minister Berhan Hailu told Reuters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

Just as Ethiopia has threatened to use military force against the ICU, the ICU has vowed to attack the Ethiopian soldiers that it claims have crossed the border into Somalia. (Although Ethiopia denies this, eyewitness accounts makes it appear that the ICU is correct that there are Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia.)

There is no fighting at present between the ICU and Ethiopian forces. Part of the reason for this may be that a number of politicians within Somalia's interim government are in the process of defecting to the ICU and bringing their militias with them. This is similar to the process that the Taliban used to gain power in Afghanistan, by getting individual warlords and their militias to align themselves with the radical Islamic movement. The ICU may want to gain as many allies as possible before taking on the more powerful Ethiopian military. Then the ICU may launch an attack on the Ethiopians, just as they promised. Both the Ethiopians and the ICU may prefer it if the ICU strikes the first blow.

There are a variety of views on how fighting between the ICU and Ethiopians may go. Ethiopia clearly has the upper hand because their ground forces have better training and equipment, and they have the extra advantage of some air power. Moreover, while every major news outlet has bureaus in Jerusalem and Amman, there aren't any Mogadishu bureaus. The lack of press coverage may make the Ethiopian army feel less constrained in carrying out its military operations than Israel is in Lebanon. But one consideration on the other side is that it's unclear to what degree there is cross-pollination between the ICU and al-Qaeda's factions in Iraq. If the ICU has had much of this exposure, that increases the chance that it could employ some of the insurgent tactics used by al-Qaeda in Iraq, such as improvised explosive devices. That could make things more difficult for the Ethiopian military than they anticipate.

Counterterrorism consultant Dan Darling contributed to the information in this post.
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