The headline in an Ethiopian newspaper drew familiar, if unflattering, comparisons to another nation’s faster-thanexpected victory in a war abroad.
“Mission Accomplished,” blared Addis Ababa’s Daily Monitor in a story about Ethiopian forces’ triumph over Somalian Islamists this week.
In 2003, the same phrase adorned a banner behind President Bush as he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq, though the battles and bloodshed proved far from over.
Just as the Iraq invasion has divided Americans, Ethiopians are split over their government’s decision to get involved in Somalia’s brewing civil war by sending troops across the border.
After just a week of fighting, Ethiopian troops have enabled Somalia’s transitional government to gain control of a vast swath of southern Somalia that had been seized by the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union over the last six months. By Thursday morning, Ethiopian and Somalian government troops had reached the outskirts of the capital city, Mogadishu, with Islamic forces there apparently having disappeared into the populace.
Ethiopian leaders are calling the military intervention a smart preemptive strike against the spread of religious extremism in the Horn of Africa. They say the world should thank Ethiopia for defeating a coalition of militant Islamists that U.S. officials have accused of having links to terrorists, including Al Qaeda.
Others here worry that the incursion could backfire over time by stirring political instability at home or driving Islamic militants to set their sights on this nation.
Ethiopia has no opinion polling to measure public attitudes, and recent government crackdowns against opposition leaders and journalists have made some citizens afraid to express their views.
But nearly everyone, including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, agrees that the issue has sparked debate.
“It’s natural to have disagreements on fundamental issues,” Meles said Thursday. Yet he stressed that the Ethiopian people expressed “overwhelming” support for the action in Somalia.
About three-quarters of Ethiopia’s Parliament voted this month in favor of military involvement in Somalia. Though the vote suggested a resounding endorsement, opposition leaders said it was the closest tally they’ve had in a legislative body heavily dominated by Meles’ party. One Parliament member who is part of Meles’ political coalition abstained, a rare act of defiance.
Doubts on threat
Noting that Islamists have threatened to resort to guerrilla tactics against Ethiopians, opposition leader Beyene Petros said he was not convinced that the threat posed by the Islamic courts merited Ethiopia’s declaration of war.
“Ethiopia should not be bogged down in a problem that is not ours,” he said. “This is not Ethiopia’s problem. It’s all of Africa’s.”
He also expressed concern that the government might use the perceived threat of terrorism to crack down against political enemies. After last year’s disputed election, Meles was criticized for his response to large student demonstrations. Nearly 200 people were killed, mostly civilians, and many elected opposition leaders remain in prison awaiting trial for treason.
Supporters of the intervention in Somalia point to the Islamists’ declaration of a “holy war” against Ethiopia.
“It’s self-defense,” said Amare Aregawi, editor of the Reporter newspaper and a former rebel fighter. “People always say, ‘Don’t touch the terrorists. You’ll aggravate them.’ What are we supposed to do? Flatter them?”
Others said the Islamists in Somalia were merely a front for international militants or other enemies of Ethiopia.
“I believe this whole thing came from Eritrea,” said Michael G. Kirstus, 29, a customs house worker. International experts have said that Eritrea, Ethiopia’s chief rival, has dispatched 2,000 troops to aid the Islamists, though the government in Asmara has denied it.
Allegations of U.S. involvement have been another hotbutton issue in Ethiopia. Many believe the United States used Ethiopia to launch a proxy war against the Islamists.
“This was an American-made war,” said Akmel Negash, 22, a student.
Meles on Thursday denied that U.S. soldiers or weapons were being used in any battles, though he noted that Washington and Addis Ababa have a long-standing agreement to share intelligence.
“We are not fighting anybody’s war,” Meles said. “We are fighting to defend ourselves.”
Meles said that during a visit this month by U.S. Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top American commander in the Middle East had advised against a Somalia invasion. “He shared his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan with us, and he indicated that we have, to the maximum extent possible, to avoid direct military intervention in Somalia,” Meles said.
The war against Somalia’s Islamists has been a touchy topic in Ethiopia’s Muslim community. The country is about evenly split between Christians and Muslims, though Christians have dominated the government and Muslims were often oppressed.
Though the communities have largely coexisted in peace, Muslim and Christian villagers clashed this year in southwestern Ethiopia in a conflict over religious holidays. More than a dozen people were killed and churches were burned.
“Muslims in Ethiopia are angry,” said Isaac Eshetu, 25, a student. “For 2,000 years they’ve been living as strangers in their own motherland.”
He said he opposed violence or imposing his religion on others, but “as a Muslim, I would like to live under an Islamic government.”
Some Muslims questioned whether Ethiopia’s Christian leaders launched the attack because they feared an Islamic government in Somalia might encourage Ethiopia’s Muslims to seek the same.
Other Ethiopian Muslims said they supported the war.
“I’m Muslim, but I don’t identify with them,” said Mohammed Arab, 33, a waiter in Addis Ababa, the capital, referring to Somalia’s Islamic courts militants. “They believe in holy war. I don’t.”