The latest clashes, last week and over the weekend, were some of the most violent in Mogadishu since the end of the American intervention in 1994, and left 150 dead and hundreds more wounded. Leaders of the interim government blamed U.S. support of the militias for provoking the clashes.
U.S. officials have declined to directly address on the record the question of backing Somali warlords, who have styled themselves as a counterterrorism coalition in an open bid for American support. Speaking to reporters recently, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would "work with responsible individuals . . . in fighting terror. It's a real concern of ours -- terror taking root in the Horn of Africa. We don't want to see another safe haven for terrorists created. Our interest is purely in seeing Somalia achieve a better day."
U.S. officials have long feared that Somalia, which has had no effective government since 1991, is a desirable place for al-Qaeda members to hide and plan attacks. The country is strategically located on the Horn of Africa, which is only a boat ride away from Yemen and a longtime gateway to Africa from the Middle East. No visas are needed to enter Somalia, there is no police force and no effective central authority.
The country has a weak transitional government operating largely out of neighboring Kenya and the southern city of Baidoa. Most of Somalia is in anarchy, ruled by a patchwork of competing warlords; the capital is too unsafe for even Somalia's acting prime minister to visit.
Leaders of the transitional government said they have warned U.S. officials that working with the warlords is shortsighted and dangerous.
"We would prefer that the U.S. work with the transitional government and not with criminals," the prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, said in an interview. "This is a dangerous game. Somalia is not a stable place and we want the U.S. in Somalia. But in a more constructive way. Clearly we have a common objective to stabilize Somalia, but the U.S. is using the wrong channels."
Many of the warlords have their own agendas, Somali officials said, and some reportedly fought against the United States in 1993 during street battles that culminated in an attack that downed two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters and left 18 Army Rangers dead.
"The U.S. government funded the warlords in the recent battle in Mogadishu, there is no doubt about that," government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari told journalists by telephone from Baidoa. "This cooperation . . . only fuels further civil war."
U.S. officials have refused repeated requests to provide details about the nature and extent of their support for the coalition of warlords, which calls itself the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism in what some Somalis say is a marketing ploy to get U.S. support.
But some U.S. officials, who declined to be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the issue, have said they are generally talking to these leaders to prevent people with suspected ties to al-Qaeda from being given safe haven in the lawless country.
"There are complicated issues in Somalia in that the government does not control Mogadishu and it has the potential for becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda and like-minded terrorists," said one senior administration official in Washington. "We've got very clear interests in trying to ensure that al-Qaeda members are not using it to hide and to plan attacks." He said it was "a very difficult issue" trying to show support for the fledgling interim government while also working to prevent Somalia from becoming an al-Qaeda base.
A senior U.S. intelligence official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was a "Hobbesian" situation -- that the transitional government operating from Kenya was in its "fifteenth iteration" and that it, too, was a "collection of warlords" that played both sides of the fence. The official said that it presented a classic "enemy of our enemy" situation.
The source said Somalia was "not an al-Qaeda safe haven" yet, adding, "There are some there, but it's so dysfunctional." U.S. officials specifically believe that a small number of al-Qaeda operatives who were involved in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania are now residing in Somalia.
Analysts said they were convinced the Bush administration was backing the warlords as part of its global war against terrorism. "The U.S. relies on buying intelligence from warlords and other participants in the Somali conflict, and hoping that the strongest of the warlords can snatch a live suspect or two if the intelligence identifies their whereabouts," said John Prendergast, the director for African affairs in the Clinton administration and now a senior adviser at the nongovernmental International Crisis Group.
"Are we talking to them and doing some of that? Yes," said Ted Dagne, the leading Africa analyst for the Congressional Research Service. "We fought some of these warlords in 1993 and now we are dealing with some of them again, perhaps supporting some of them against other groups. Somalia is still considered by some as an attractive location for terrorist groups."
The issue of U.S. backing came to the forefront this winter when warlords formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism after a fundamentalist Islamic group began asserting itself in the capital, setting up courts of Islamic law and building schools and hospitals.
Soon after, the coalition of warlords were well-equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and antiaircraft guns, which were used in heavy fighting in the capital last week. It was the second round of fighting this year, following clashes in March that killed more than 90 people, mostly civilians, and emptied neighborhoods around the capital.
In a report to the U.N. Security Council this month, the world body's monitoring group on Somalia said it was investigating an unnamed country's secret support for an anti-terrorism alliance in apparent violation of a U.N. arms embargo. The experts said they were told in January and February of this year that "financial support was being provided to help organize and structure a militia force created to counter the threat posed by the growing militant fundamentalist movement in central and southern Somalia."
In March, the State Department said in its terrorism report that the U.S. government was concerned about al-Qaeda fugitives "responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the November 2002 bombing of a tourist hotel and attack on a civilian airliner in Kenya, who are believed to be operating in and around Somalia."
The United States relies on Ethiopia and Kenya for information about Somalia. Both countries have complex interests and long-standing ties and animosities in the country. In December 2002, the United States also established an anti-terrorism task force in neighboring Djibouti, with up to 1,600 U.S. troops stationed in the country.
Africa researchers said they were concerned that while the Bush administration was focused on the potential terrorist threat, little was being done to support economic development initiatives that could provide alternative livelihoods to picking up a gun or following extremist ideologies in Somalia. Somalia watchers and Somalis themselves said there has not been enough substantial backing for building a new government after 15 years of collapsed statehood.
"If the real problem is Somalia, then what have we done to change the situation inside Somalia? Are we funding schools, health care or helping establish an effective government?" Dagne said. "We have a generation of Somali kids growing up without education and only knowing violence and poverty. Unless there is a change, these could become the next warlords out of necessity for survival. That's perhaps the greatest threat we have yet to address."
Somalis far from the factional fighting in Mogadishu said they were waiting for anyone to help ease their destitute lives during the worst drought in a decade. In Waajid, a dusty town about 200 miles northwest of the capital, thousands of villagers have left their farms for squalid camps, searching for water and living in open, rocky fields under low-lying, fragile shelters of sticks and rags that look like bird's nests.
Many people here say they feel that the United States has ignored Somalia since the failed 1993 military intervention. Today many Somalis said they regret that chapter in their history and thank the United States, the largest donor of food and funding for water trucks during this season's drought.
However, they said that news that the U.S. government was talking with warlords has awakened feelings of resentment.
"George W. Bush, we welcome the Americans. But not to back warlords. We need the U.S.A. to help the young government," said Isak Nur Isak, the district commissioner in Waajid. "We won't drag any Americans through the street like in 1993. We want to be clear: We don't want only food aid, but we do want political support for the new government, which is all we have right now to put our hopes in. We can't eat if everyone is dead."Wax reported from Waajid, Somalia, and Nairobi. DeYoung reported from Washington.