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Battle for Mogadishu Escalates

Fighting rages as Al Shabaab extremists and government forces battle on streets


“Life in Hell” is a running GlobalPost series about life inside Somalia, the world’s most failed state.

MOGADISHU, Somalia—It was a fairly typical Thursday in Mogadishu. By mid-morning, the fighting had already reached a fever pitch.

From the roof of a broken city building artillery flashes tore the clear blue sky, clouds of dust rising where the shells fell. The pop of distant gun shots and the fizz of close flying ones were obliterated by the repetitive thundering of machine gun fire and the occasional wall-shaking boom of nearby artillery. It went on and on, in fits and starts, through much of the day.

The fighting that rages through Somalia’s seaside capital is between the Islamist insurgents of Al Shabaab and the combined forces of the interim government and African Union peacekeepers, known as AMISOM.

In Mogadishu there is no peace to keep.

The fighting is the worst the city has seen in almost 20 years. Somalia’s stateless chaos first began when the military regime of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed in 1991.

Since Al Shabaab carried out double suicide bombings killing 79 football fans in Kampala in July, the 7,000 mostly Ugandan peacekeepers have fought back hard.

They have had some success recently in pushing Al Shabaab back and—street by street, building by building—extending the sphere of control of the Transitional Federal Government a few blocks at a time, establishing new forward detachments in the bombed-out remains of the city.

The government forces have made additional progress outside the city where its allied militias, primarily a Sufi army called Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa, have chased Al Shabaab out of a few towns in recent weeks.

Officials in Mogadishu insist that they have the upper hand in six of the capital’s 16 districts. But even in these areas government officials and foreign visitors speed along the uneven roads in convoys with one or two "technicals"—pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns and packed with soldiers that have come to symbolize Somalia’s Hobbesian conflict. They stop for nothing, slow down for little.

Al Shabaab, the Islamic extremists that are allied to Al Qaeda and use many of its terror tactics, spent Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, attacking government and AMISOM positions. There were some horrible spectaculars. An assault on the Muna Hotel on Aug. 24 was like the Mumbai attacks of 2008 writ small: gunmen went room-to-room executing people. They killed 32 including half a dozen lawmakers before blowing themselves up.

Then on Sept. 9, Al Shabaab’s car and suicide bombers came close to breaching the airport before they were shot and killed.

At one point the rebels almost succeeded in severing the road that links the airport to the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, both of which are guarded by AMISOM troops and tanks.

The Transitional Federal Government, headed by President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and Prime Minister Mohamed Abdillahi Mohamed, espouses a more moderate Islam and has the backing of the United Nations and the African Union and its troops. AMISOM’s training, superior firepower and mechanized forces are the bulwark against the government’s collapse. With its AK47s, belt-fed machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, Al Shabaab cannot outgun AMISOM’s armored personnel carriers and tanks but the insurgents have begun employing smart guerrilla tactics.

Suicide attacks and roadside bombs have become a mainstay of the insurgency in the last couple of years and now Al Shabaab fighters have taken to tunnelling beneath Mogadishu’s already fragile roads, weakening them to create traps for AMISOM’s heavy vehicles. At least one tank was lost this way earlier in the year, its destruction featuring in an Al Shabaab propaganda video.

AMISOM officers say the way to defeat Al Shabaab and create the space in which a functioning government can be formed is to pour in more troops. Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni says he is ready to provide 20,000 soldiers, the African Union has backed his call and the U.N. Security Council is considering the proposal.

The worry is that such a big force might be seen not as liberators but occupiers, as the U.S. army was viewed in 1993 when fractious Somali clan militias united long enough to shoot down two Black Hawk helicopters and kill 18 U.S. rangers.

But the alternative of allowing the government’s own forces do the job is not yet an option. The transitional government’s soldiers have been trained abroad in Uganda and Djibouti and while they may number around 9,000 on payday, military commanders admit that when it comes to fighting the force is more often a fraction of that size.

Desertions are common, discipline poor and morale low with many fighters owing allegiance to clan warlords rather than the government.

At a frontline outpost called Hoosh four miles outside the city center, dozens of transitional government fighters in an abandoned hotel peer out across a landscape of tangled thorn trees and wrecked villas.

Their Somali commander, Colonel Agey, dressed in desert fatigues, says that his job is tough: he lacks salaries, ammunition and food for his troops who face regular attacks from Al Shabaab. “Sometimes the attacks come in the morning, sometimes in the evening,” he shrugs, “so we fight.”