Ethiopia's foray smoother in Somalia than at home

Involvement in neighbor's brewing civil war splits public opinion

December 29, 2006|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,Los Angeles Times

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- The headline in an Ethiopian newspaper drew familiar, if unflattering, comparisons to another nation's premature declaration of victory in a war abroad.

"Mission Accomplished," blared Addis Ababa's Daily Monitor in an article about Ethiopian forces' triumph over Somali Islamists this week.

In 2003 the same phrase adorned a banner behind President Bush as he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. The battles and bloodshed proved far from over.

Just as the Iraq invasion has divided Americans, Ethiopians are split on their government's decision to get involved in Somalia's brewing civil war by sending troops across the border.

After just a week of fighting, Ethiopian troops have enabled Somalia's transitional government to regain control of a vast swath of southern Somalia that had been seized by Somalia's Islamic Courts Union over the past six months.

By yesterday morning, Ethiopian and Somalia government troops reached the outskirts of the capital city, Mogadishu, with Islamic forces seeming to have disappeared into the populace.

Ethiopian leaders are calling the military intervention a smart pre-emptive strike against the spread of religious extremism in the Horn of Africa. They say the world should thank Ethiopia for defeating a coalition of militant Islamists that U.S. officials accused of having links to terrorism, including al-Qaida.

Others worry that the foray could backfire over time by stirring political instability at home or driving Islamic terrorists to set their sights on Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has no opinion polling to measure public attitudes, and recent government crackdowns against opposition leaders and journalists have made some afraid to express their views.

But nearly everyone, including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, agrees that the issue has sparked debate.

"It's natural to have disagreements on fundamental issues," Meles said yesterday. Yet he stressed that Ethiopian people "overwhelming" support the action in Somalia.

Earlier this month, Ethiopia's parliament voted in favor of a Somalia engagement by about 75 percent.

Though the vote suggested a resounding endorsement, opposition leaders said it was the closest tally they have had in a legislative body heavily dominated by Meles' party. One parliament member who is part of Meles' political coalition abstained, a rare act of defiance.

Noting that Islamists have threatened to resort to guerrilla tactics against Ethiopians, opposition leader Beyene Petros said he was not convinced that the threat posed by the Islamic courts merited Ethiopia's declaration of war.

"Ethiopia should not be bogged down in a problem that is not ours," he said. "This is not Ethiopia's problem. It's all of Africa's."

He also expressed concern that the government might use the perceived threat of terrorism to crack down against political enemies. After last year's disputed election, Meles was criticized for his response to large student demonstrations. Nearly 200 were killed and many elected opposition leaders remain in prison awaiting trial for treason.

Supporters of the intervention in Somalia point to the Islamists' declaration of a "holy war" against Ethiopia.

"It's self-defense," said Amare Aregawi, editor of the newspaper The Reporter. "People always say, `Don't touch the terrorists. You'll aggravate them,'" said Aregawi, a former rebel fighter. "What are we supposed to do? Flatter them?"

Others said the Islamists in Somalia were merely a front for international jihadists or other enemies of Ethiopia.

"I believe this whole thing came from Eritrea," said Michael G. Kirstus, 29, a customs house worker. International experts said Eritrea dispatched 2,000 troops to aid the Islamists, though the government denied it.

Allegations of U.S. involvement have been another hot-button issue in Ethiopia. Many believe the United States used Ethiopia to launch a proxy war against the Islamists.

"This was an American-made war," said Akmel Negash, 22, a student.

Meles denied yesterday that American soldiers or weapons were used in any battles, though he noted that the U.S. and Ethiopia have a long-standing agreement to share intelligence.

"We are not fighting anybody's war," Meles said. "We are fighting to defend ourselves."

Meles said that during a visit this month by U.S. Gen. John Abizaid, the American commander advised against a Somalia invasion. "He shared his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan with us and he indicated that we have, to the maximum extent possible, to avoid direct military intervention in Somalia," Meles said.

The war against Somalia's Islamists has been a touchy topic in Ethiopia's Muslim community. The country is about evenly split between Christians and Muslims, though Christians have dominated the government and Muslims were often oppressed.

Though the communities have largely coexisted in peace, earlier this year, Muslim and Christian villagers clashed in southwest Ethiopia over a conflict about religious holidays. More than a dozen were killed and churches were burned.

"Muslims in Ethiopia are angry," said Isaac Eshetu, 25, a student. "For 2,000 years they've been living as strangers in their own motherland."

He said he opposes violence or imposing his religion on others, but "as a Muslim, I would like to live under an Islamic government."

Some Muslims questioned whether Ethiopia's Christian leaders launched the attack because they feared that an Islamic government in Somalia might encourage Ethiopia's Muslims to seek the same.

Other Ethiopian Muslims said they supported the war. "I'm Muslim, but I don't identify with them," said Mohammed Arab, 33, a waiter in Addis. "They believe in holy war. I don't."

Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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