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What is next after Ethiopian troop withdrawal from Somalia?
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What is next after Ethiopian troop withdrawal from Somalia?  

By Abdurrahman Warsameh

With Ethiopia's announcement of withdrawing its troops from Somalia by the end of the year, as well as the signing and culmination of the Djibouti peace and power-sharing agreements between the Somali transitional government and a major opposition faction, the political and military equations within the war-torn Horn of Africa country have changed, say analysts, but the future remains "as dark as ever".

The Ethiopia government said in a letter sent to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping early last week that it would withdraw its remaining troops from Somalia by the end of 2008, culminating two years of intervention in Somalia.

The announcement, which in effect is the formalization of a long process of silent and low profile withdrawal from the country, comes as the Somali transitional government is only controlling Baidoa, the seat of the parliament and pockets of Mogadishu, where the African Union peacekeepers along with the remaining Ethiopian soldiers are protecting government offices as well as the air and sea ports, says Abdurrahman Hussein, a political commentator in the Somali capital.

"Ethiopian troops are withdrawing from small areas in the capital and Baidoa in which they still remain, but we should never lose sight of the fact that the (withdrawal) process started way before now," Hussein told Xinhua. "No single foreign soldier either from Ethiopia troops or the African Union peacekeepers are outside the two cities. The rest is under the control of the opposition forces."

The opposition, mainly divided into two camps -- the radical Al-Shabaab group and their ideological allies, and the moderate Islamists dominated Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS), are united only in terms of their opposition to the presence of Ethiopian troops in the country.

However, the feared Al-Shabaab group is opposed to any talks with what they see as an "apostate government" and demands no less than an Islamic state in Somalia that implements literally every word in the Koran, the holy book of Islam.

In contrast, the political leadership of the ARS faction led by the moderate leader Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed have entered into peace talks with the transitional government and signed a power sharing deal in which the membership of the Somali parliament will be doubled and a new leadership for the country will be elected at the beginning of next year.

The two opposition groups control roughly the same swathes of territories in south and central Somalia with the Al-Shabaab group ruling much of the areas to the south of the capital while ARS' military wing, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), run much of the regions to the north of Mogadishu.

Although some of the commanders of the ICU on the ground have issued statement rejecting the agreement reached with the government by their political leaders in Djibouti and vowed to continue "the holy war" against government forces, their Ethiopianallies and any foreign forces to be deployed in Somalia, the moderate leaders, unlike the Al-Shabaabists, are not opposed to the deployment of UN authorized peacekeeping forces.

They have been adding their voice to the need to expedite the deployment of a UN force, saying, just like Ethiopian authorities long held, that "a security vacuum" will be created by the Ethiopian troops' withdrawal.

However, the Al-Shabaab group and their likes are bent to fight any foreign troops -- whether Ethiopian forces or UN authorized peacekeepers -- that are deployed in Somalia. They have also clearly stated their unwillingness to share power with what they see as "enemy collaborators."

Mohamed Ibrahim, a Somali analyst, says the new leadership will include senior members of the moderate Islamists within the opposition ARS who will need to convince the other groups to join the process with further negotiations needed before a final settlement is reached.

"I am doubtful whether the new leadership, who we expect will come mainly from senior ARS leaders and officials of the current Somali transitional government, will have the clout to convince or the power to subdue the new opposition that is the Al-Shabaab and their allies," Ibrahim maintains. "To me as things now stand, the future of this country seems as dark as ever if a rethink is not on the cards about the deployment of any further foreign forces to Somalia."

(Xinhua News Agency December 1, 2008)

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