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From Marine to warlord

A Somali who once lived in West Covina now has hopes of becoming president of his homeland.

January 22, 2007|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

MOGADISHU, SOMALIA — The Planning Department clerk from West Covina was mapping bike routes and San Bernardino Freeway overpasses when two U.S. Marines drove up in a white Chevrolet and took him away.

The night before, on Oct. 3, 1993, Hussein Mohammed Aidid had watched in horror as television conveyed images of a disastrous U.S. military mission against a Mogadishu warlord. After two Black Hawk helicopters crashed, an ensuing gunfight left 18 American servicemen dead, and rioting Somalis dragged some of the bodies through the streets.

"Hell is coming," he recalled thinking before turning off the TV in disgust.

Perhaps no one in the world was more conflicted than Aidid, a Somalian immigrant who settled in Southern California as teenager. He had served with the U.S. Marines in Mogadishu for four months that year as part of Operation Restore Hope, and the death of the U.S. Rangers "was like a black hole inside of me."

But his father, Mohammed Farah Aidid, was the warlord the U.S. was targeting.

The next morning, at the U.S. Marine base at Camp Pendleton, a commander asked Aidid to send a letter to his father, pleading for the release of a captured U.S. pilot. He said he didn't hesitate.

"I felt almost as if I could have been in that conflict and died," he said.

Three years later, however, Aidid would abandon his job and his military ties in America to return home after the death of his father. Aidid assumed control of his father's militia, inherited a vast swath of territory and became one of Somalia's most powerful warlords himself.

Today Aidid, 44, is trying to change mantles again. As interior minister for Somalia's struggling transitional government, he is the man charged with restoring security to Mogadishu. After routing Islamic fighters from southern Somalia last month with the help of Ethiopian troops, the government is trying to bring order after 16 years of chaos and clan wars.

Described by critics as a wily opportunist who switches alliances easily, Aidid makes no secret of his desire to one day become president. Despite anger by some Somalis over the recent U.S. airstrike against suspected terrorists in the country, Aidid said his U.S. background is an asset, not a liability.

"People say to me: 'You are our connection to the world. You understand that world. Be that bridge,' " he said.

Over the years, Aidid has struggled to emerge from the shadow of his famous father. Both are still vilified in some parts of the country for using ruthless tactics to crush opponents. Even political allies groan at his occasional blunders, such as his recent suggestion that Somalia and archrival Ethiopia might one day merge into a single country.

"He's a lightweight," said Ken Menkhaus, Somalia scholar at Davidson College in North Carolina. "He's never had the gravitas of his father."

But even those who scoff at Aidid as immature or unstable warn against counting him out. His family and clan connections, encyclopedic memory and track record for political survival guarantee his spot as a power broker in Somalia's future.

Supporters praise Aidid as the first to make the transition from warlord to politician. They say his push for reconciliation, including forgiving the clan that killed his father in a 1996 battle and giving up land for peace, fostered an environment that enabled the current government to form.

"He's fresh and young and doesn't have a black record," said Abdirasak Farah Ahmed, a taxi driver from Aidid's clan. "He was the main one who got rid of the warlords. He is the only one who can unite the people."

In the sitting room of his rented Mogadishu house, Aidid remains a clash of U.S. and African cultures. He wears a dark Western suit and power tie, with bare feet. He acknowledges two wives and seven children, though an aide counts four wives and 20 kids.

He can dance and feast in a cow field during an all-night clan festival, but still retains some of his old military habits, such as jotting down tasks and thoughts in a small notebook. He speaks so rapidly at times, for example rattling off the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," that it seems his mouth can scarcely keep pace with his brain.

Aidid enjoyed a comfortable upbringing as son of a military guard until his father was jailed in 1969 on suspicion of plotting a coup against then-dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. In 1975, Aidid's father was released from prison and rejoined the resistance. He sent Aidid to the U.S. His mother and other siblings would soon join.

"We moved into exile so my father could do the opposition work he had to do," Aidid said. When he graduated from Covina High School, he said, joining the Marines was a natural choice. "I come from a military family," he said. "My hero was my father. I felt I must do something for my new country." His interest in science and math led him to specialize in computers and programming, studying the inner workings of MX missiles and artillery.

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