Islamists have taken control of Mogadishu, and Somalia may become a new front in the American war on terrorism

Yesterday, the Somali Taliban of the Union of Islamic Courts declared themselves in control of the country's capital, and the Somali warlords who had terrorized and looted Mogadishu for the last 15 years have been chased out of town.

The warlords' defeat is also a defeat of the Americans, who, after years of fighting against them, have recently come to their support. The Taliban victory may mark the beginning of a major new conflict.

A NEW ISLAMIC ERA

After three months of bloody street fighting, last Sunday the Islamists undertook a decisive attack on the forces of the allied warlords, not only pushing them out of Mogadishu, but also from the neighboring villages and towns.

"A new era has begun," the leader of the Islamic Courts Union, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, declared in a radio address, urging the capital's residents to recognize the new authorities and the new order.

Founded 6 months ago, The Union of Islamic Courts is the first Somali organization to bring any kind of order to Mogadishu, which for years has been submerged in lawlessness and constant warfare.

The chaos in Somalia dates to 1991, when a civil war led to the overthrow and exile of the President Mohammed Siad Barre. His victorious opponents went on to wage an endless conflict over power and whatever loot there was.

BLACK HAWK DOWN

Even the Americans, who, having beaten Saddam Hussein's army in the first Persian Gulf War, intended to introduce justice and order to Africa, couldn't stop the Somali civil war of the 90s. The warlords didn't appreciate the Americans' good intentions. They declared them intruders and started to fight them, enjoying support of all kinds from radical Islamists and terrorists, including Osama bin Laden.

In 1993, when a fully-fledged war erupted between the Marines and the forces of - then powerful - warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid [], al-Qaeda advisors helped the commander Aidid with training and battle expertise.

Today we know that, when Aidid's militias fought a 24-hour-long battle with Americans in downtown Mogadishu (the story of which is told in the well-known movie "Black Hawk Down") al-Qaida not only supported Aidid, but also earned experience in fighting Americans. Many of the methods used today by terrorists in Iraq and other countries were fine-tuned after Mogadishu.

In the battle that took place on October 3, 1993, the 18 Americans were killed and 73 wounded; the Somalis - over a 1,000 dead and 3,000 to 4,000 thousand wounded. Soon afterward, the disenchanted Americans withdrew from Somalia, vowing never to return.

AL-QAEDA BASE

In 1998, American Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were blown up. The FBI and CIA learned that at least one of the al-Qaeda agents responsible for the attacks went into hiding in Mogadishu. In addition: the operation itself might have been launched from Somalia. Soon thereafter, the first reports appeared about bin Laden's organization's having at least one large training base in Somalia.

At the time, a Somali Islamic organization, al-Ittihad al-Islam, fighting for the establishment of Muslim rule in Somalia and Ethiopia, began a close relationship with al-Qaeda. Still, the Americans decided against taking serious action in Somalia.

All of that changed in 2001, when in retaliation for the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington, the United States declared war against all of the world's terrorists. American troops then invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, without letting out of their sight other nations that were harboring or abetting anti-American fighters and their ideological leaders.

The appearance of Somali Taliban in Mogadishu caused the Americans to forget old grievances and seek an alliance with the warlords against the Taliban. The arrangement was made more palatable by the deaths five years ago of the Pentagon's bane, commandant Aidid.

But the Americans continued to refuse - apart from sporadic actions by Special Forces – to put boots on the ground in Mogadishu. The American Navy, however, patrolled the Somali coast and made life more difficult for the Taliban, by seizing shiploads of weapons headed to the Islamists.

THE DEFEATED WARLORDS

Last February, eight of the richest warlords formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism. Though always unproved, rumors circulated in African capitals for weeks about CIA agents' bringing dollars to Mogadishu by the sack-full to fund the war against the Taliban.

A month later, armed, fed and paid by Americans, confident in themselves and their powerful allies, the warlords attacked neighborhoods in the capital controlled by the Union of Islamic Courts. Then the fiercest street battles in 15 years erupted in Mogadishu. Up to the beginning of June, the fighting had claimed the lives of almost 500 people, with 1500 wounded, and tens of thousands of Mogadishu residents fleeing the city.

But the warlords' offensive was quickly halted by the Taliban, who launched a counterattack. Last week they overcame the warlords' militias in most of the city's neighborhoods, and on Sunday pushed them out of town. The Taliban also took the suburbs and even the town of Balad, 30 km north of the capital. Seizing Balad gives the Taliban control over all the roads leading to Mogadishu from the north.

Mogadishu's tribal elders have already declared their support for the Taliban. The vanquished Alliance militias are giving up their weapons and joining the victorious Taliban, while the warlords are seeking refuge in Jowhar, 100 km from the capital.

ANOTHER WAR?

But for the residents of the Somali Capital, the Taliban triumph may bring not peace and calm, but a new, even more terrible war. The Americans will not accept the rule of hostile, radical Islamists in that country. Somalia may become a new Afghanistan, a country openly collaborating with and harboring al-Qaeda terrorists.

Working with the Americans in defiance of the international embargo on sending weapons to Somalia, Ethiopia is dispatching convoys across the desert with rifles, mortars and ammunition for the beaten but unbowed warlords. After Afghanistan and Iraq, Somalia may become a new front in the worldwide war against terrorism