Bolstered by a meeting Thursday between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Somalia's transitional president, the Obama administration is embarking on the most direct engagement in the Horn of Africa nation since 18 U.S. peacekeepers were killed there in 1993, diplomats of both countries say.
Wrapping up her first stop of a seven-nation Africa tour, Clinton met Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed at the U.S. Embassy in Kenya to discuss ways Washington can provide additional financial and military support to help the fragile government defeat an insurgency by Islamic extremists.
Clinton is the highest-ranking U.S. official to hold a one-on-one meeting with the head of Somalia's 5-year-old transitional government. The meeting was part of a new approach by the Obama administration to restore formal diplomatic ties with Somalia and take a more active role in assisting the U.N.-recognized government.
Though the United States' humanitarian aid to Somalia has been substantial in recent years, including funding most of an African peacekeeping force there, until recently most of its assistance was funneled through the United Nations or African Union.
In addition to the meeting with Clinton, which Somali officials said would give Ahmed a much-needed political boost, the Obama administration has sent 40 tons of weapons and munitions to his government this year. The U.S. is also providing military training to government soldiers and has donated more than $1 million in direct assistance, officials said.
"We believe this government is the best hope we've had in quite some time for a return to stability and the possibility of progress in Somalia," Clinton said Thursday at a news conference with Ahmed.
"It's fair to say that President Obama and I want to expand and extend our support" for the transitional government, Clinton said.
During the Bush administration, the U.S. largely bypassed the Somali government and limited its engagement to counter-terrorism efforts.
In 2006, the CIA was accused of secretly funding warlords to nab terrorism suspects believed to be hiding in Somalia, drawing complaints from Somali officials who said the program undercut their authority. After that, the U.S. launched about six airstrikes against suspected terrorists, including one that killed a top leader of the main insurgency group, Shabab.
Neither Clinton nor Ahmed would comment on specific U.S. commitments made Thursday, but Somali officials said discussions centered on providing additional weapons, boosting humanitarian assistance and formalizing ties, such as exchanging ambassadors.
"The U.S. is the first country to give us direct bilateral assistance," said Foreign Minister Mohamed Omaar.
Washington broke most diplomatic ties with Somalia after the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's dictatorship in 1991.
President Bill Clinton withdrew U.S. peacekeepers in 1993 after troops were killed after a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Mogadishu, the capital.
A U.N. peacekeeping mission withdrew soon after, leaving Somalia in a state of near-constant civil war and anarchy. The people have largely been at the mercy of warlords, clan elders and, most recently, Islamic militants who seized control of large swaths of southern Somalia from the government.
Somali officials see closer U.S. ties as crucial to the defeat of insurgents, whom the U.S. alleges are being backed by Eritrea's government and other outside forces.
"U.S. support is very important to us," Ahmed said Thursday. "The U.S., because it is a superpower, has the responsibility to move us out of the current crisis. But closer U.S. ties bring risk for both sides."
Some fear that U.S. weapons could fall into insurgent hands, noting that many soldiers defected to militias last year when the government stopped paying their wages. Somali soldiers also have been accused of rights violations.
"An increase in weapons means an increase in violence," said retired Mogadishu teacher Abdi Nur Ahmed Ismail, 56. "It encourages fighting."
He said he was skeptical about U.S. motives. "Do Americans want peace in Somalia [or do they] only want to prevent terrorists from getting strength?"
Leaders of Shabab and other opposition groups are already using the increased U.S. involvement to stir up nationalist sentiment and paint Ahmed's government as a puppet of the United States.
"There is no difference between Bush and Obama," said Shabab commander Sheik Muse Hassan Ali. "Both are against Islam and are trying to eradicate Islamic governments around the world."
He said he welcomed the U.S. arms shipments because "we are ready to confiscate all these weapons."
Ahmed, who was elected president this year, has said that his government is making progress in rebuilding the army, eliminating corruption and combating insurgents. But recent fighting suggests that neither side has gained a clear advantage.
Thanks to about 5,000 African troops, the government controls the Mogadishu airport, seaport and a small zone that includes the presidential palace.
Shabab, meanwhile, is struggling with internal power struggles, fueled by an influx of foreign fighters with conflicting agendas, diplomats said. To fund its operations, Shabab is believed to be holding two French security consultants who were kidnapped last month in Mogadishu and three international aid workers seized during a raid into northern Kenya.
Though Shabab leaders have repeatedly avowed allegiance to Al Qaeda, it remains unclear how close their cooperation is with the terrorist network, U.S. officials say.
But there is no question that Shabab's tactics have become more aggressive and far-reaching over the last year. This week, the Australian government arrested four people suspected of plotting a terrorist strike in that country. Some of them were said to have been trained in Somalia.
At least two Shabab fighters killed this year in Somalia, including one suicide bomber, were recruited last year in Minnesota, home to a large community of Somali refugees, U.S. officials said.
Yet Shabab's popular support is believed to be waning. It has frustrated people in areas under its control by harassing U.N. and aid groups that provide food and other relief. They've also imposed a harsh form of Islamic law, at times beheading enemies or cutting off the hands of thieves.
Special correspondent Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed in Mogadishu contributed to this report.