Marines Hit Somalia to Help in U.N. Retreat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their fingers crossed in hopes of avoiding a repeat of bloodshed here, U.S. Marines splashed ashore in Somalia early today to conclude a misadventure that hardened America's heart to troubles in far-off corners of the globe and deepened its doubts about being the world's policeman.

The Marines, mostly from Camp Pendleton with some from El Toro and Tustin, and a contingent of their Italian counterparts sent their reconnaissance teams ashore Monday, then followed around midnight with an amphibious landing along the beach and at the port of Mogadishu.

The arriving troops' mission is to provide a protective shield for the final retreat of the United Nations from a tortured, $2-billion, two-year-plus incursion here.

Marines chose this moonless night to cover most of their movements for their second trip to Somalia since 1992.

They used standard landing craft, armored assault vehicles and Hovercraft. The Marines came ashore in waves that continued throughout pre-dawn hours today.

The entire operation occurred behind friendly lines and commenced without challenge, although fighting between Somali clans had raged just across barbed-wire barriers in Mogadishu for the two preceding days.

From the beach, Marines advanced inland barely half a mile to assume defensive positions along a three-mile perimeter. Almost 2,000 American and 500 Italian troops participated in the landing, with more troops held in reserve aboard the ships offshore.

"I'm happy at this point," the commander of the operation, Marine Lt. Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, said as the second of nine landing waves arrived on shore. "Anytime you move at night, even though this is a secure area, it's dangerous. There are a lot of moving parts out there."

Zinni added a commander's natural caution: "It's important to take these things one day at a time and not assume it's going to go well because it starts out well."

The Marines on Monday and today sought a heavy show of force to try to dissuade Somali clans from attacking the U.N. withdrawal effort in the days ahead.

But they also equipped themselves with the latest in low-impact weaponry, such as canisters that spray "sticky foam" to immobilize unruly mobs, which may yet have their eye on looting the last of U.N. property before it is loaded on outbound ships.

Officials said it could take just two to three days to evacuate 2,500 Pakistani and Bangladeshi peacekeepers and their equipment, the last of the U.N. force here.

Gradually, the protective perimeter will be shrunk until the Marines and Italians occupy only a thin strip of beach along the Indian Ocean. Then, these last foreign troops are themselves to vanish over the eastern horizon, leaving this endangered nation to its fate.

Somalia's first decisive challenge will be operation of its seaport and airport--which U.N. forces have secured and from which they have been keeping away children, scavengers and the curious for days. An all-out clan fight for these choice properties could quickly pinch off any hopes of economic revival, leaving the capital without medicine and oil to pump municipal water.

Local businessmen scrambled for a last-chance agreement that would keep the port operating under a Somali committee on which the two primary clan chiefs of Mogadishu, Ali Mahdi Mohamed, who controls the northern part of the city, and Mohammed Farah Aidid, whose strength is in the south, would be represented.

But intermittent, intense fighting on Sunday and Monday between clan factions invited pessimism about the coming days and weeks in Mogadishu.

Just contrast the present program's formal name, "Operation United Shield," with "Operation Restore Hope" of Dec. 9, 1992, when less-cynical American troops arrived here to strengthen a tiny U.N. contingent for what turned out to be a campaign to save Somalia from itself.

It began as a mission to feed starving thousands, the victims of famine and war plunder--and, not incidentally, to serve U.S. interests in Somalia's oil resources and boost the Horn of Africa nation's potential to withstand Islamic fundamentalism.

But then, after inviting themselves in, the United States and United Nations were unable to resist fatal temptation as they tried to impose social stability on Somalia's warring clans. This was a cause that frustrated the world, for the Somalis proved fiercely resistant to outside notions of democracy and order even as they sustained themselves in avaricious fashion on goodwill relief supplies and abundant U.N. payrolls.

"At the time, there was euphoria the international community felt. The Cold War had ended, and there was the experience of the Gulf War. The international community came here to Somalia thinking it could apply the same thinking (to) . . . Somalia," conceded James Victor Gvebo, the fifth man to lead the troubled U.N. mission here in less than three years.

Perhaps a final assessment of failure should await time: Somalis, after all, have enjoyed freedom from colonialism for but a generation. And only four years ago did they topple a dictator who shrewdly manipulated Cold War superpowers and clan tensions to sustain his regime.

But whether the outside world is guilty of impatience, surely it can be said that the original U.S.-led incursion into Somalia was a sobering lesson. Among the casualties of good intentions: 30 American troops killed in combat, a dozen killed in accidents, more than 100 U.N. personnel slain and untold hundreds, maybe thousands, of Somalis killed.

Another victim has been support in Washington and elsewhere for what had been envisioned as a grandiose expansion of U.N. peacekeeping.

After sending a high of 26,000 troops--the most to Africa since World War II--the United States lost its resolve in October, 1993, when 18 U.S. troops, a U.N. soldier from Malaysia and perhaps 300 Somalis were killed as a result of an all-night firefight.

From humanitarianism had arisen war. Pictures of starving Somali children tugged hearts, but the sight of the body of a naked U.S. serviceman dragged through the streets of Mogadishu turned stomachs. President Clinton sounded retreat, and the U.S. military was out by March, 1994.

U.S. peacekeepers were not further engaged until this amphibious landing.

Even after U.S. forces departed, the United Nations stayed on in Somalia, with 30% of its budget paid by American taxpayers. With a gradually shrinking force, its duty chiefly became to protect itself. Finally last autumn, a pullout deadline of March was voted by the Security Council.

The Pentagon agreed to return here one final time because its quick mobility capability offered the best prospects for deterring Somali attacks on the U.N. evacuation.

"The world tried just about everything it could think of in Somalia--and it didn't work," U.S. envoy to Somalia Daniel H. Simpson said. "The Somalis have had more than enough time to pull themselves together. They've had more than their share of the world's help, gold, blood and goodwill."

Due in no small part to Somalia, other troubled nations of Africa also will have to be more self-reliant from now on. America's military contributed only modestly, and belatedly, to help the dying in Rwanda's tragedy last year.

Even some of the most shocking genocide and pestilence of this age failed to build domestic support for another big African adventure.

And early this year, the President's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, toured the continent with a warning: The rich nations of the world have lost patience with Africa's destructive civil wars. If the continent cannot build from the foundation of assistance so far given, it's future may be grim indeed.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°