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Somalis Try to Begin Again

Meeting for the first time inside the country, legislators hope to bring order after 15 years of anarchy. Meanwhile, battles rage on.

April 03, 2006|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAIDOA, Somalia — In a sweltering, bombed-out grain silo here, a group of would-be founding fathers is plotting the birth of a nation.

Or more accurately, the rebirth of one.

After 15 years of anarchy, a fledgling Somalian parliament formed outside the country is meeting for the first time on Somalian soil in this crumbling southern city. The transitional government is the latest in a string of attempts to restore law and order to the Horn of Africa nation that fractured in the collapse of the dictatorship of Maj. Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and the disastrous international intervention that followed.

Outside the makeshift parliament, where legislators began meeting last month, piles of rubble and dilapidated buildings line dirt streets. Electricity and water remain scarce. Gangs of militiamen roam the streets in trucks mounted with antiaircraft weapons.

But none of that seemed to detract from the heady mood of the lawmakers, who were appointed during a peace conference in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, in 2004. This is their Philadelphia, they said, a historic gathering of leaders from small independent fiefdoms who are working to set aside their differences.

It's too soon to say whether they will write a new chapter in Somalian history, or end up another footnote.

"This time is going to be different," promised Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, speaker of the Somalian parliament, during an interview inside his new office, where the lights flickered on and off. "The reconciliation is going on. We are sorting out our differences."

Events on the ground raised some doubts about that. Even as parliament members were debating a new national security plan, fierce battles raged in the capital of Mogadishu between warlords and Islamists. More than 70 people were reportedly killed, and hundreds fled their homes.

The government has yet to form an army, and a United Nations arms embargo prevents it from training and equipping soldiers. So the government could do little more than appeal for calm and wait for the fighting to die out.

In the south, 1.4 million Somalis require emergency food and water because of a drought, but the government has no income. To date, it has lived off handouts from the international community. China donated $100,000 in December. The European Union committed $85 million, but it has yet to be delivered. The U.N. Development Program is paying lawmakers' $1,100-a-month salaries.

Many in Somalia fault the international community for not doing more.

Iraq's new national assembly was front-page news in papers abroad. The conflict in Sudan's Darfur region continues to draw high-level attention. But Somalia's transitional government has been greeted with a "wait and see" attitude, and the parliament opening a month ago passed largely unnoticed by international media, at least partly because of the security risks and logistical challenges of getting here.

"There's a lot of talk about rebuilding Somalia, but fewer concrete steps in that direction," Foreign Minister Abdullahi Sheik Ismail said. "There's a culture of indifference and apathy. We have been left to our own disaster."

The United States, in particular, has drawn scorn from Somalian leaders. Members of parliament complain that U.S. counter-terrorist campaigns are undermining the government's legitimacy by forging relationships with warlords to gather intelligence and pursue suspects inside Somalia.

"Everyone here is talking about the double standards of America," said Mohammed Ali Shiriye, a member of parliament. "They are still giving support to the warlords in Mogadishu. But now the U.S. must respect this country. It must go through the government."

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which is responsible for relations with Somalia, declined to comment.

The 275-member parliament was selected by Somalian clan leaders. Parliament chose the president, who appointed the prime minister, who formed the government.

Most of the new Cabinet consists of the same warlords and clan leaders who have been fighting over Somalia since 1991. The new interior minister is Hussein Mohammed Aidid, son of the Mogadishu warlord who was being sought by U.S. Marines in the disastrous 1993 "Black Hawk Down" operation, in which 18 servicemen died.

Aden, the parliament speaker, is a dapper former livestock exporter from the Bay region in south-central Somalia. President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed spent years in prison for battling the Barre government before emerging as head of the Puntland semiautonomous region in northern Somalia. Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi was a veterinarian and university lecturer.

The rest of parliament is rounded out with tribal chiefs, military leaders from the previous government and refugees who returned from the United States, Canada and Europe. At least half a dozen members claim U.S. citizenship.

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