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US Troops Exit Somalia As Somalis Seek Accord On New Government

GREETED with smiles and handshakes by thousands of Somalis on the beaches of their capital, Mogadishu, in December 1992, US troops went ashore as heroes who had come to save the starving and restore not only hope, but peace.

Tomorrow, more than 15 months later, the final group of soldiers from the United States is pulling out, still much-appreciated by many Somalis, but controversial for having engaged in fierce battles with one faction. They did help end the starvation. But despite their sophisticated arms and logistical capabilities, peace proved to be an elusive goal.

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Now Somalis have taken up the task of seeking peace using traditional Somali negotiations, involving charm, bluster, and bluff, plus a modern tactic: occasional armed attacks with mobile artillery and machine guns.

During nearly two weeks, leaders of key factions have met occasionally in Nairobi to seek agreement on how to set up a government for Somalia, but talks apparently broke down yesterday. Meanwhile, some factions' troops have held skirmishes at home.

Forces of Gen. Mohammed Farah Aideed, who is participating in the Nairobi talks, fought rival militia in central Somalia, several hundred miles north of Mogadishu. His opponents say General Aideed is trying to enlarge his territory in preparation for further attacks in the region.

This two-track approach of talks and attacks has put Somalia in a delicate balance - a period of ``no peace, no war,'' says Gen. Omar Haji, chairman of the Somali National Front (SNF), one of the factions involved in the talks here. ``People are thirsty for peace,'' he adds, echoing a sentiment frequently voiced by Somalis on both sides of the negotiations.

But neither Aideed nor his rivals appear willing or able to wage full-scale civil war to gain political dominance. An official close to Aideed says regarding the possibility of renewed war, ``We don't believe it will happen. At least on our side, it's not part of the calculation.''

``No one can afford that [war],'' says SNF General Secretary Abdurahman Abdulle, whose faction is in opposition to Aideed.

But while both sides profess an abhorrence to more war, they also claim the right to name the next president, who will serve until there are national elections. That is the nub of Somalia's current political dilemma.

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Monitor interviews here this week with leaders in the two main camps reveal that despite public statements of growing harmony between the two sides, there is no agreement on the key issue of how to choose a president.

Any agreement signed here - several signings have been postponed this week at the last minute - would delay this thorny question for a later meeting, probably in Somalia, according to Somalis involved in the talks. The talks are partially funded by and brokered by the United Nations.

One of the remedies under discussion behind closed doors in luxury Nairobi hotel suites is a national conference in April in Somalia that would decide the country's form of government and how the leaders would be chosen at a subsequent conference to be held as soon as May. One much-discussed remedy is the naming of a president, who would have several vice presidents to help balance power among major factions, plus a prime minister. But the key question, still, would be: Who chooses them?

Both sides appear to have agreed on a traditional Somali meeting of clans, involving a wide range of participants, probably both military and civilian. Aideed wants to scrap the UN-sponsored peace agreement of March 1993, which he and other factional leaders signed in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Under that agreement, he and his supporters get only four of 16 votes. Now, an aide says, he wants voting at any national conference to be based not only on popular strength but also on the role each faction played in the military ``struggle'' to topple former Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, overthrown in January 1991. Aideed contends his side did the most to defeat Mr. Barre.

Aideed also claims ``support and control'' in 11 of 18 regions. But his critics says this is ``nonsense.'' Aideed ``doesn't control one region,'' contends SNF General-Secretary Abdulle.

Meanwhile, violence has surged again in Mogadishu in recent weeks, with several kidnappings of foreign workers, and on Sunday two Italian journalists were shot to death.

Somali political leaders talk of rebuilding a national police force. But wherever a police force has been started, bandits are better armed than the police. In Mogadishu, UN and US troops have not patrolled for months.

There have been a number of shellings on the ever-diminishing number of US troops in recent weeks. While they came as heroes, the last US soldiers are leaving as targets.

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