Ethiopia's Involvement Key in Somali Conflict

Somali combatants loyal to the Islamic courts are in full retreat, abandoning Mogadishu and heading for the port city of Kismayo. Meanwhile, troops loyal to Somalia's secular interim government are reported to be on the outskirts of Mogadishu. Backed by tanks and troops from Ethiopia, the "government" troops appear intent on entering the capital and retaking control.

This is a dramatic turnabout. Just over a week ago the Islamists controlled Mogadishu and vast areas outside the capital. Somalia's weak government was cowering in the city of Baidoa, where the interim government is based, under the protection of Ethiopian forces.

In the course of just a few days, Somalia's embattled government -- with the critical support of Ethiopia -- has reclaimed a significant amount of territory and managed to drive the Islamists out of Mogadishu.

The involvement of Ethiopia was, and remains, critical to the Somali government's cause. However, the government's recent success is also due in part to what allies and supporters of the Islamists didn't do. For one thing, the neighboring country of Eritrea, reported to be a key backer of the Islamists, and a powerful military force in the region, seems to have dropped out of the equation. And it is clear that the big clans in Mogadishu did not rally to the aid of the Islamists in their hour of need.

It is clear now that the Islamists' military strength drew mainly from elements of the large clans in Mogadishu. The clans had used the Islamists as a kind of third party to bring peace and stability to Mogadishu, and the Islamists managed to do that for the first time in many years. But their institution of Sharia law -- banning sale and use of the mild narcotic quat, closing cinemas -- did not sit well with the average Somali.

Faced with the reality of interim government soldiers and their Ethiopian allies bearing down on them, the elders of the big clans decided to withdraw support for the Islamists. It remains unclear what happened to Eritrea.

Some have suggested that the Islamists and their allies are simply regrouping and will soon counterattack using insurgent tactics. While that cannot be ruled out, it will be very difficult for insurgents to operate effectively in Mogadishu which is tightly controlled by various clan militias.

It is unlikely that Ethiopia will send its tanks and troops into Mogadishu in any great numbers -- if at all. Ethiopia has no desire to remain in Somalia and will likely only hang around long enough to make sure Somalia's government forces are in control.

There are already reports that clan militias loyal to the government are in control of key points of the city. But it is still a very unsettled situation and it may not be clear what is happening in Mogadishu right away.

Right now it appears there is genuine relief that the Islamists' hard line rule has been pushed out.

An optimistic person would say that the big clans in Mogadishu finally tired of anarchy, that the interim Somali government is working towards peace, security and the first real government since 1991.

A pessimistic person would say that the warlords will go back to their old ways -- dividing Mogadishu into a series of clan-based enclaves where the gun rules.

On the optimistic side, it has to be remembered that Somalia's interim Prime Minister Gedi also comes from the powerful Abgal sub-clan; the Abgal were a key component of the Islamists' military strength and are particularly strong in North Mogadishu. This is a plus for the interim government.

The Habre Gadir sub-clan is the other key Mogadishu clan and has traditionally fought the Abgal for control of the capital. Ironically the Abgal and Habre Gadir are sub-clans of the same clan, the Hawiye.

Interestingly, while everyone knows Gedi is Abgal, he cleverly portrays himself as Hawiye, and that will no doubt play to his favor when it comes to dealing with Mogadishu's clan elders.

Somalia's interim President Yusuf, on the other hand, is not so popular in Mogadishu, and to get anywhere in Somalia politically, you have to win Mogadishu. Yusuf is from the Darod clan which has its representation in many other parts of the country, but not in Mogadishu. The logic behind selecting these two men as prime minister and president was that, between them, they represented a large percent of Somalia's clans.

There will be a great deal of behind-the-scenes negotiating in the days ahead. Mogadishu's clan chiefs will no doubt demand representation in government. Deals will be struck, compromises made and the threat of continued anarchy will remain unless all sides can truly agree to work together.