WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has begun sending arms aid to the beleaguered government of Somalia, officials said Thursday, in an escalation of its commitment to one of the world's most troubled states.
State Department officials said the support was intended to help sustain a transitional government that is steadily losing ground to Islamic militants in fighting that has been catastrophic for civilians. The administration also is stepping up humanitarian aid to the country, said officials, who declined to disclose how much would be spent.
"We are concerned," said Ian Kelly, the State Department spokesman, referring to the Somali government's stability.
The money will help "repel the onslaught of extremist forces which are intent on . . . spoiling efforts to bring peace and stability to Somalia," Kelly said.
The move is a signal that the administration wants to broaden its commitment to sub-Saharan Africa, going beyond the counter-terrorism programs that were the Bush administration's primary focus, officials said.
Yet, greater involvement in the impoverished Horn of Africa also carries risk, and comes as the United States is already struggling with the burden of its military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The record of former President Clinton's first year in office was tarnished by the killing of 18 U.S. soldiers in an October 1993 raid in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
The new effort will not involve any American troops, officials emphasized. U.S. officials hope that the aid will lead other countries to make their own contributions to support the transitional government.
U.S. officials and their allies worry that a victory by the hard-line Shabab militant group and other insurgents would further destabilize the region, and make Somalia a haven for international terrorist groups.
World powers hoped that the moderate Islamist government that took power in January could neutralize the threat from more extreme elements. But the militants, who want to create an Islamic state, have gained ground since beginning an offensive last month, and now control most of the capital and much of the rest of southern Somalia.
The insurgents have imposed harsh Islamic law that includes executions, floggings and amputations. On Thursday, militants cut off hands and feet of four men convicted of stealing cellphones.
Their declared goal is to drive out African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi who are in Somalia to try to stabilize the country.
Somalia also has been the base for pirates who have been preying on shipping. International efforts against the pirates have been hindered by world powers' reluctance to get involved in Somalia.
Obama promised during the campaign that he would do more to help Africa than his predecessor did.
Officials have already said they intend to increase U.S. involvement in Zimbabwe and Sudan, and the president plans a visit to Ghana next month to underscore his interest in the region.