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Kenya poised to intervene in Somalia

It has massed troops on the Somali border. Islamist militias have threatened retaliation if Kenya acts.

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With troops massed on the Somali border and heavy artillery being moved into position, Kenya appears ready to join – if necessary – the Ethiopians in an armed intervention in Somalia.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki called together his National Defense and Security Council in Nairobi yesterday, and while Interior Minister George Saitoti assured Kenyans that Kenya would not intervene in Somalia, it was clear that other ministers and defense officials were preparing for such a step.

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Prime Minister Raila Odinga – a former opposition leader now serving in a coalition government with Mr. Kibaki's party – urged East African nations to consider sending troops to Somalia to bolster the United Nations-backed transitional government against the ongoing onslaught of Islamist militias.

Recommended:Ethiopian troops return to Somalia

Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula echoed the sentiment, and said that Somalia's crisis had become for Kenyans a matter of national security.

"It will be most inappropriate and inadvisable to do nothing when our national security and regional stability is threatened," he said.

Islamist militias threaten to retaliate

An intervention by Kenya would be risky. Kenya is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Somalis, and has become a begrudging host to thousands more Somali refugees, many of whom may take offense from an intervention by Kenya in Somalia.

Islamist militias in Somalia have specifically threatened to launch terrorist attacks in Nairobi if Kenya sends in its troops, and Kenya's rather lax security apparatus is thought by many security experts to be inadequate to meet the challenge.

Yet Kenyan politicians may be more cognizant of the political rewards of intervention than the risks, particularly at a time when the government faces internal divisions and mounting scandals, and may see a military intervention as a new lease on life.

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"For Kenya, [the thought of intervention] is getting many people scratching their heads: 'What happened to the old pragmatism?' " says Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa specialist at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi.

When the government loses the ability to negotiate domestic issues, he adds, such as a new constitution, or burgeoning corruption scandals, "they hark for adventures abroad. 'If other countries can do this, why can't Kenya?' they think."

Kenya's coalition government near collapse

To be sure, Kenya's coalition government has been teetering at the edge of collapse for months, with the two main parties, Kibaki's PNU and Mr. Odinga's ODM, jostling with each other publicly for power and control of parliament.

A Somali intervention may not unite these two parties, but it would likely divert public attention, Mr. Abdi says, particularly over contentious issues such as holding top politicians liable for the postelection violence that occurred in the wake of national elections held on Dec. 27, 2007.

Ill prepared for violent reaction?

Yet unlike Ethiopia, which has a battle-tested army and respected intelligence network, Kenya may be ill prepared for the violent reaction that their military intervention may create among the shadowy Islamist militias who are based just across Kenya's northern borders.

"Kenya is unlikely to go into Somalia, but if it does go in, it would be a small cross-border incursion rather than a full-scale intervention," says Roger Middleton, a Horn of Africa specialist for Chatham House in London. "I would think they would be more likely to be careful about the possible spillover effect."

Kenya has a long border with Somalia, he adds, and the Kenyan authorities would have difficulty preventing infiltration both by refugees and by extremists. In addition, "Kenya has a large Muslim population, around 10 percent, and the relationship between the central government and the Muslim communities hasn't always been harmonious. An intervention would upset that balance."

The allied militias of Al Shabab and Hizbul Islam may not pose an actual military threat to Kenya's relatively strong conventional Army, and, in an intervention, they would probably repeat their previous tactics during the Ethiopian intervention of 2006, melting away into the countryside without putting up much of a resistance.

But with a host of suicide bombings to its credit, Al Shabab could wreak havoc in an open metropolis such as Nairobi.

"If you attack us, we will launch suicide attacks in Nairobi and we will destroy the tall glass buildings," said Sheikh Hassan Yacub Ali, Al Shabab's spokesman in the Southern Somalia town of Kismayu.

"Kenya is a classic liberal society, and if Kenya intervenes in Somalia, Shabab will attack in Nairobi and will act with impunity, and nobody will be able to stop them," says Abdi.

Terrorist attacks in Kenya itself could have catastrophic effects for Kenya's multiethnic society, where Somalis form a small but prominent business class.

Kenya's culture of tolerance has already been tested severely by the ethnic violence that followed the 2007 elections, which killed 1,500.

"If Shabab begins to conduct terrorist operations here," Abdi adds, "there will definitely be an immediate backlash against Somalis here."