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Continuing Somali Violence May Delay U.S. Withdrawal

By Daniel Williams
and John Lancaster

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

An upsurge of violence in Somalia this week has prompted U.S. military planners to consider slowing the withdrawal of U.S. troops and leaving a larger number of combat troops in Somalia than originally planned, U.S. sources said Thursday.

The possibility of a greater U.S. combat presence to augment a planned international peacekeeping force under United Nations command raises the prospect that the United States may attempt to play a more significant role in maintaining order in Somalia than anticipated.

"I think recent events indicate that it is going to be a lot more difficult to get out of Somalia," a senior U.S. military officer said. "What you'll see is a residual force of some considerable size for an extended period of time."

For the second straight day, roving bands of Somali gunmen Thursday defied U.S. and allied troops in Mogadishu, firing on U.N. offices, the U.S. diplomatic mission, foreign relief offices and hotels housing foreigners. Three U.S. Marines and two Nigerian soldiers were wounded in Thursday's fighting.

Until this week's outbreak of fighting and rioting, the Pentagon expected to begin a full-scale withdrawal in a matter of weeks, leaving behind a residual contingent of as many as 5,000 U.S. troops, mainly in support of a larger U.N.-led force.

A senior Pentagon official cautioned Thursday that no decision had been made about increasing this longer-term U.S. commitment to Somalia, but he said the option would be discussed with U.N. officials in talks over the timing of the U.S. withdrawal and the size of the follow-on force.

"We've had things we're prepared to throw on the table," the official said, adding that to leave more combat troops in the country is "within the realm of what we're prepared" to consider.

Among the administration's stated objectives in intervening in Somalia last December was creation of a "secure environment" for delivery of food to starving Somalis. Such security, it was hoped, would give peaceable political activists room to emerge from under the shadow of militia violence.

Thursday, U.S. officials, discussing the Somali situation privately, said they expect further serious outbreaks of violence. As a result, they also expect the transition to a U.N.-led peacekeeping operation will be delayed beyond its scheduled completion date in mid-April.

Nonetheless, some officials regarded the turmoil as a symptom of success, not failure.

Arms at the disposal of Somali militias have been reduced by U.S. raids on arms caches, the officials said, and access to new weapons is hindered by foreign control of major ports and roadways. Clan militias, while a threat to each other, are no match for troops from the United States and other countries now in place.

"The warlords are getting nervous," a State Department official contended. "They are having their feathers plucked. They realize over time that their power is slipping away.

U.N. forces will have to "show their teeth" to keep the volatile Somali militias at bay, the official added.

When U.S. troops first arrived in Somalia, U.N. General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali urged them to disarm the warring clans before withdrawing. American military commanders declined to guarantee full disarmament, although several raids on arms caches took place.

U.S. officials had been critical of the United Nations for slowness in recruiting other countries to send replacement troops and naming a military commander to head the U.N. force. A Turkish general has since been picked to take command.

About 17,000 U.S. soldiers are in Somalia along with about 14,500 troops from 21 other countries. The number of non-U.S. troops has been expected to grow to about 20,000.

A U.S. military official said Thursday that Somalia is currently too unstable for U.N. peacekeepers, who have a reputation for passivity under fire. "We have an unstable situation in Mogadishu and in just about all the other towns," said a senior officer with access to classified intelligence reports. "I think what we're seeing now is what we were afraid was going to happen.

"I can't see how it would facilitate" the transfer of operational control to the United Nations, he added. Each day of reduced U.S. troop strength, however, creates a problem for American forces left behind, he said.

"Whether we go in there and enforce peace is very much a function of whether you've got the troops over there to do it," he said.

For the moment, delivery of humanitarian relief, the primary objective of the U.S. intervention, is at a standstill. Moreover, the American goal of getting unarmed Somalis to take the political lead in the tumultuous country is in doubt with the assertion this week of gun-barrel authority by Mohamed Farrah Aideed, a militia commander in Mogadishu who aspires to supreme power.

Periodic negotiations among Somali leaders have proceeded slowly, and no results are expected anytime soon. Aideed's outburst is unlikely to encourage unarmed Somalis to talk freely, especially if they oppose Aideed's ambitions.

"Alternative leadership will not come out unless there is evidence they are not at the mercy of warlords," said Terrence Lyons, an analyst at the Brookings Institute here.

The emergence of such leaders will take time but an American preoccupation with a speedy withdrawal had given the impression that U.S. interest in Somalia is limited. When then-President George Bush announced the dispatch of U.S troops to the east African country, Pentagon officials said most of the forces would likely be home by the spring.

"Americans like to think we can roll up our sleeves, set things right and get out. But the only way to foster what we want -- a government accepted by the Somalis -- will take time," said I. William Zartman, an expert on conflict resolution and director of African Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.<\