International lawlessness

Undeterred by the horrors and disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, the Bush administration has opened another battlefront in the Muslim world. With US backing, Ethiopian troops have invaded Somalia in an illegal war of aggression.But this brazen US-sponsored bid to topple the popular Islamists who had brought Somalia its first peace and security in 16 years has already begun to backfire. Looting has forced the transitional government to declare a state of emergency. Clan warlords, who had terrorised Somalia until they were driven out by the Islamists this year, have begun carving up the city once again. And the African Union, which helped create the transitional government, has called for the immediate withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from the country, as did Kenya, a close US and Ethiopian ally.

They had little choice: the invasion was a clear violation of international law and a UN security council resolution, which the US itself pushed through earlier this month, that explicitly forbade troops from any neighbouring country from joining even the new peace-keeping force it authorised for Somalia. That still did not prevent the Bush administration from issuing a strong statement of support for the Ethiopian offensive.

As with Iraq in 2003, the US has cast this as a war to curtail terrorism. The real goal of course is to gain a direct foothold in another highly strategic and oil rich region by installing a client regime in Somalia. The US had already been violating the UN arms embargo on Somalia by supporting the warlords who drove out the UN peace-keepers in 1993 by killing 18 US soldiers, in order to push out the Islamists. That effort failed and an Ethiopian invasion remained the only way to oust a group with popular support. All independent experts warned against such a war, saying it would destabilise the region.

Ethiopia itself is highly unstable. Thought of as a Christian nation, it has a sizeable Muslim population which has begun to assert itself after marginalisation in the power structure. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi heads a dictatorial regime which has held on to power with US support after losing last year's elections. But this war, unlike its conflict with Eritrea, will not unify the country behind Meles.

To achieve its goals, the US once again ensnared the UN security council, which cravenly adopted a resolution which will further cement its reputation as an anti-Muslim body. It authorised a regional peace-keeping force to enter Somalia to protect the weak and isolated transitional government and "restore peace and stability". But all major international news organisations had reported that the country experienced this year its first respite from the utter lawlessness and terror that prevailed since 1991. A multilateral force was suddenly deemed necessary only because it was the Islamists that had brought about this stability - and they had done so not through violence but primarily through rallying people to their side by creating law and order through the application of sharia law, which Somalis universally practise.

The Islamists are not angels. But their collective pool of terror acts is dwarfed by the terrorism of the warlords that the US has been supporting in blatant violation of the UN arms embargo.

The US has every right to be concerned about terror. But the best anti-dote to terrorism in Somalia is stability, which the Union of Islamic Courts provided. The Islamists have strong public support, which has grown in the face of US and Ethiopian interventions. As in other Muslim-western conflicts, the way to secure peace is to engage with the Islamists to ensure that they have no reason to turn to terror.

Salim Lone, UN spokesman in Iraq in 2003 and is a columnist for the Daily Nation in Kenya.