As war engulfs Iraq and Afghanistan, another region of the world has been destabilized by war — the Horn of Africa, encompassing Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia.

On Jan. 7-9 the Pentagon launched multiple airstrikes against targets in southern Somalia, purportedly to kill three al Qaeda members suspected of involvement in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies. Somali sources said dozens of people were killed. Most were believed to be innocent civilians.

Since local chieftains, or “warlords,” in Somalia, orchestrated a U.S.-assisted coup to overthrew President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has been in turmoil. Interim President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, 70, of a military background, assumed power in 2004 backed by some of Somalia’s neighbors, the UN, the European Union and most notably the United States, but his government has failed to take full control of the country.

As a result, many groups have moved in to exploit the vacuum created by a failing regime. The militia group the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) has sought to displace what it considers to be a weak transitional government backed by the government of Ethiopia. The ICU, due in large part to its strict interpretation of Islamic law, has been compared to such governments as the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In June 2006, the ICU, after declaring a “holy war,” took control of Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia.

On Dec. 8, the Ethiopian government, led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has been labeled by some as a “staunch ally” of the U.S., denied reports that the Ethiopian government had sent troops to Somalia, calling them “rumors.” Ethiopian officials stated that they were only supplying military trainers to Somalia.

However, less than one month later Zenawi admitted that his country is in fact at war with “Islamic extremists” and that his government has troops fighting against the ICU in Somalia. Some analysts say up to 15,000 Ethiopian troops have invaded the country.

Bereket Simon, Ethiopia’s minister of information, told a reporter, “The Ethiopian government is bombing non-civilian targets in Somalia in order to disable and prevent the delivery of arms and supplies to the Islamic Courts.”

The U.S. has for quite some time supported the Ethiopian government militarily. The entire region is regarded as critically important to the U.S. because of its strategic position at the southern opening of the Red Sea, where it can control the flow of tankers and other ships into the oil-rich Middle East.

In May 2006, through reports from both U.S. analysts and Somali officials, it was revealed that the U.S. government has also been secretly supporting some warlords in Somalia.

U.S. officials have been unwillingly to admit their direct involvement in this crisis. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States would “work with responsible individuals . . . in fighting terror. It’s a real concern of ours — terror taking root in the Horn of Africa. We don’t want to see another safe haven for terrorists created. Our interest is purely in seeing Somalia achieve a better day.”

Local Somali officials, however, have warned U.S. officials that working with these warlords could prove to be “shortsighted” and “dangerous.”

U.S., Somali and Ethiopian officials have accused the ICU of working with al Qaeda and other foreign Islamic extremists, including some Pakistani and Chechen groups. The ICU denies these charges.

The government of Kenya, led by President Mwai Kibaki, another U.S. ally, has sent troops, armored vehicles and trucks to its borders with Somalia to assist in fighting the ICU. The U.S., in a show of support for its Kenyan allies, has also assigned a counter-terrorism task force to train the Kenyan Coast Guard and has also supplied three boats to patrol the country’s borders.

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