Somalia Slips From Hope to Quagmire : In Monday's attack, the peacekeepers looked more like warlords.

Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications.

The assault by U.N. helicopters on the supposed suburban residence of a lieutenant of a Mogadishu gang leader sums up the disaster that the U.N. mission has become.

The Monday morning raid, firing missiles and 20-millimeter cannon rounds, killed at least 70 civilians. So a spokesman for the warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid claimed, while presenting more than 20 bodies before the press hotel.

In furious retribution, Somalis killed at least two journalists--from Associated Press and Reuters--who had the misfortune to be the first to arrive on the scene after the U.S.-made attack helicopters had departed. (Two other journalists were missing and feared dead, and two more were wounded.)

The cycle that began with Aidid's ambush on the Pakistani soldiers on June 5 has now claimed more than 100 lives in Mogadishu, maybe far more, both of Somalis, and of U.N. personnel.

The all-consuming preoccupation of the U.N. mission headed by retired American Adm. Jonathan Howe is now the destruction of Aidid. All earlier air assaults on Aidid have thus far inflicted one bullet hole in his capacious mansion.

The heavily damaged building shown in many news reports belongs to Aidid's neighbor, a civilian who was giving shelter to three families of Somali refugees. Such at least was the eyewitness observation last weekend of Alex de Waal of the London-based Africa Rights organization.

The U.N. mission is now disintegrating, just like the society it supposedly is helping. Its command structure has unraveled both at the military and the political levels. The Italian troops in the U.N. force take orders only from Rome, and the Pakistanis from Islamabad. After these back-channel palaverings, the local Italian and Pakistani commanders cut their specific deals with the local Somali chieftains.

Indeed, it is supposed by some observers on the scene that the Monday assault by the attack helicopters was an effort by Howe to retrieve the overall initiative from his own subordinate commanders in the U.N. force. This is "tribal politics" with a vengeance.

What began last December as Operation Restore Hope has now become Operation Destroy Aidid. Just one dollar in 10 of the U.N. budget for Somalia is due to be spent on relief, according to a U.N. report, an advance copy of which was obtained by the British Guardian. The total U.N. budget for Somalia is $1.5 billion for 1993, of which merely $159 million is allocated to "humanitarian work."

Troubling is the fact that in this 19-page report to the Security Council by Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, there are only four paragraphs devoted to the humanitarian aspects of the mission.

The U.N. top brass are well aware that what they had hoped would be a blueprint for a new U.N. role in the 1990s is increasingly resembling a 19th-Century colonial expedition. Boutros-Ghali's report uses light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel promises about soon restoring "the momentum of relief-and-rehabilitation programs" and claims that relief work in other parts of Somalia has not been disrupted.

This is strongly contested by officials of private relief organizations that manage about 70% of Somalia's aid. They say many areas are too dangerous to visit and field workers have had to be withdrawn because of mounting Somali resentment of the United Nations.

If relief workers had been first on the scene Monday morning after the helicopter attacks, they would have most likely been killed, just as the journalists were.

Either cooped up in camps or, as farmers, undercut by the foreign shipments of food, Somalis are becoming increasingly dependent on food relief, even as the U.N.'s military follies in Mogadishu make the arrival of these shipments ever more uncertain.

If they were part of an evenhanded effort to disarm the gangs, the attacks on Aidid might have some sort of respectable rationale. But as things are, the U.N. force is now perceived as partial.

Howe is swiftly establishing a solid reputation as a commander of lavish incompetence, even down to the placing of a $25,000 reward for anyone bringing him Aidid. This has allowed Aidid to place a more substantial reward for the dispatch of Howe. Such is the degeneration of the world's peacekeeping body, even as its vast infrastructure in Somalia consumes local resources.

We are now at the 55th minute of the eleventh hour for Boutros-Ghali and his minions to get the message that the U.N. mission in Somalia is to assist in relief work and peacekeeping, not to launch search-and-destroy sorties on the model of Vietnam.

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