The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday authorized a regional force to protect Somalia's faltering interim government against Islamic militants, despite warnings that such intervention could spark a regional conflict.
The measure, passed unanimously, also partially lifts a 1992 weapons embargo to allow the regional force to arm itself. It urges Islamic militants to join talks with the transitional government, and threatens unspecified penalties for those who block peace efforts or try to overthrow the government.
Since June, the Islamic Courts Union, as the militants are known, have taken control of the capital, Mogadishu, and most of southern Somalia and have begun to impose rigid Islamic law on areas under its rule. An Islamic courts official announced Wednesday that residents of a southern Somalian town, Bulo Burti, who did not pray five times a day would be beheaded.
Last week, the International Crisis Group think tank warned that a regional force probably would backfire and trigger a regional war by escalating a proxy conflict between Ethiopia, which supports the interim government, and Eritrea, which supports the Islamists.
"The Islamists ... would likely perceive the resolution as tantamount to a declaration of war," the group said.
The United States and Ethiopia assert that the militants have links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John R. Bolton said the Security Council agreed that intervening was the only way to prevent further conflict.
"The whole point of the deployment of the ... peacekeeping force is as a preventive measure so that the situation doesn't deteriorate any further," he said before the vote. "If we don't take any steps at all, that is the far more likely outcome."
Idd Beddel Mohamed, Somalia's deputy U.N. ambassador, told the council that his government would talk with the Islamists if they halted their military advances and helped ensure that Somalia "shall not become a haven for international terrorism."
Neighboring Ethiopia, which is largely Christian, fears the spread of Islamic extremism and has sent as many as 8,000 troops to Somalia to protect the tottering government, according to a recent internal U.N. report.
Eritrea, in turn, has sent about 2,000 fighters to back the Islamists. Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Uganda and Yemen have been providing military support either to the government or the Islamists, the report said.
The resolution authorizes a seven-nation regional group, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and the African Union to establish a protection force in Somalia for six months. It allows troops from neighboring countries to join the peacekeeping force, but excludes nations thought to have a stake in the outcome: Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya.
It is up to participating nations and the African Union to fund the mission and find troops; diplomats said they aimed for eight battalions of about 700 troops, but would deploy only two during the first phase.
On Tuesday, Somalia's prime minister, Ali Mohammed Gedi, said he thought that all-out war in his country was inevitable, but that his government's troops were ready.
"Those who believe that the situation in Somalia will be solved through dialogue and talks are wrong," he told the Associated Press.