Sheikh Isse Musse, Imam of the Virgin Mary Mosque and spiritual leader of Melbourne's Horn of Africa Muslim community, condemned the US bombing of his native Somalia and its instigation of the invasion by Ethiopian troops inlate December. He also expressed hope that out of the current conflict Somalia might regain its sovereignty and national unity after years of anarchy and violence.
"Somalia has been a failed state for 16 years, with no central government or institutions, and the people in the grip of feuding clans and opposing warlords", he explained to Green Left Weekly. "Then, three years ago there was an attempt to form a government, although this was outside the country, in Kenya. Many clans participated, but it was not supported by all people, and not by the West and the US, which supported the warlords. In this confusion, the Islamists arose as a force six to seven months ago, controlling much of the country, especially the capital, and won a reputation for restoring stability."
This reputation for bringing stability won the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) popular support, especially in the places worst affected by the warlords, he said. "The warlords would set up checkpoints in urban areas to make people pay them tribute. This disappeared with the rise of the Islamists, so people could freely move around."
However, this popularity was diminished somewhat by what Sheikh Isse described as their political immaturity. "They did not know how to prioritise, how to run the country and lead the people out of chaos. They started with closing down cinemas, which backfired."
Although the warlords were crushed, "they were re-grouped by the US, under the auspices of Ethiopia. The invading Ethiopian armies included the warlords' militias."
Sheikh Isse added: "Ethiopia was doing the job of the US, that's why there was no condemnation in the UN. The US has been keeping its eye on Somalia since it left in 1993. That was 'Operation Restore Hope', in which 18 US soldiers were killed. That intervention also killed 5000 Somalis, but this is rarely mentioned."
He rejected the US claim that Somalia was sheltering the al Qaeda operatives allegedly responsible for the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, pointing out that Somalia's clan structure would make it difficult for foreigners to hide among the population. He likened the alleged presence of the embassy bombers in Somalia to the mythical weapons of mass destruction used to justify the invasion of Iraq.
"It's very hard to believe America", Sheik Isse said. "They could get the transitional government to hunt down four or five al Qaeda, but bombing is American policy all over the world."
He added that the US may not be the only imperialists intervening in Somalia: "There are rumours that British SAS forces have moved across the Kenyan border, but this is difficult to confirm."
Despite opposing the US-instigated Ethiopian invasion that brought the transitional government to power, Sheikh Isse said it is potentially a unifying force: "They have brought most of the warlords under one umbrella, with their militias going into a national army."
He doubts that the ICU would be able to wage a guerrilla war, saying it would be more likely to "melt back into their communities and be sheltered by their clans". He said that about 2000 "young and untrained" ICU fighters died resisting the Ethiopian invasion.
While calling for the immediate withdrawal of Ethiopian troops, Sheikh Isse supported the proposal for African Union peacekeepers. "We hope this country regains its sovereignty. It's been without sovereignty for 16 years", he said. "This may be achieved with the presence of African troops. A multilateral African force would be better than the Ethiopian forces, given the age-old conflict between the two countries."
However, "things are not happening in the way desired", he added. "The Ethiopians are not pulling out until African Union forces arrive … a prolonged Ethiopian presence will cause friction: it would be good policy if they pull out."
"The US should take its hands off this country. The US and Ethiopia don't have a good image there and it would be best if they left", he concluded.