Somalia on the edge of full-scale war
Islamists are calling for fierce resistance against Ethiopian troops in the country.
Peace talks aimed at avoiding civil war in Somalia were officially postponed Monday following a week of high-risk brinkmanship and heightened rhetoric from emboldened Islamic militias and the country's weak transitional government.
One side and then the other refused to attend talks that were due to restart Saturday in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, each accusing their adversary of hostile intentions.
The latest sticking point is the arrival of Ethiopian troops to bolster the government's shaky defenses at its headquarters in the provincial town of Baidoa.
Islamist leaders responded with a call to Somalia to wage jihad, or holy war, against foreign fighters and organized a rally of more than 3,000 people in the capital Mogadishu to protest their arrival.
John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says the flurry of moves leaves the country on a "precipice."
"I think both sides – particularly the Islamists – are throwing a few jabs, to use a boxing analogy, testing each other to see how far the other will go in advance of any talks, if they should happen," he says.
A complete breakdown in negotiations could spark a major regional conflict.
Somalia has been without a functioning central government since 1991, despite more than a dozen attempts to find peace between the assortment of warlords who carved the Horn of Africa nation into a series of personal fiefdoms.
Last month the Union of Islamic Courts seized control of the capital, Mogadishu, ousting a hated coalition of armed strongmen who allegedly received backing from the US.
Their victory sent shockwaves around regional capitals that do not want to see an Islamic state on their doorstep, and raised concerns in Western countries that Somalia could become a haven for Al Qaeda.
Since then the Islamic movement has replaced its moderate leader with a hard-liner, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is accused by the US of having links to terrorists groups – accusations he denies.
Islamist militiamen have fanned out across the country, imposing Islamic law on towns under their control and pinning down the government in its Baidoa headquarters.
Last week they arrived in the town of Burhakaba, only 40 miles from Baidoa, where the transitional parliament sits in an old grain warehouse.
Ethiopia has long promised to protect the government of its close ally, President Abdullahi Yusuf, and eyewitnesses reported several hundred Ethiopian troops crossing into Somalia to be deployed in and around Baidoa in response to the Islamists' advance.
Ethiopia continues to deny that its troops are in Somalia, but their presence was enough for Islamist leaders – some of whom fought Ethiopian troops in the Somali region of Puntland during the 1990s – to announce this weekend that they wanted no further part in the Khartoum talks.
At the same time the transitional government did an about turn. After boycotting the talks for more than a week, a Somali government source, who asked not to be named, says a delegation will be ready to travel to Khartoum next week.
"We want to find some middle ground, talk with them, and find out what they want. Is it seats in the government? If it is then we will try to entertain them by maybe making one big government for Somalia," he says.
However, the presence of Ethiopian troops might scuttle the prospect of talks, says Mohamud Jama, a legislator in the transitional government. "The whole purpose of the dialogue is to stabilize the situation and prevent the outbreak of violence. I don't think troops – and in particular this set of [Ethiopian] troops – can be part of the solution."
Thousands of people gathered in Mogadishu Monday carrying banners reading: "Ethiopian soldiers are unwanted in Somalia;" "Somalis have to prepare themselves for the occupation of Somalia;" "We are ready for holy war against Ethiopia."
They were addressed by Islamist leaders, some of whom urged restraint while others talked up the prospect of bloodshed.
"Anybody who allies himself to the Ethiopians will be regarded as a non-believer who violated the principle of Islam and will face jihad," said Sheikh Ahmed Kare, a hard-liner.