Somalia: Courts open old wounds

The past few months have witnessed the most dramatic and profound developments in Somalia since the collapse of the US military inter vention 13 years ago, a mission that failed when what should have been a humanitarian project became a "counter-terrorism" operation. The changes emphasise the position of the Horn of Africa at the very heart of the so-called "war on terror" - and yet you could be forgiven for not having spotted a thing about it in the media.

After the withdrawal of US forces, Somalia and its capital were in effect abandoned to the warlords who had driven them out. There was no government, no rule of law. Somalia was a textbook failed state, similar in some ways to Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, though even more chaotic, if that were possible. The warlords plundered the country, did whatever they wanted, and their militias helped themselves to whatever took their fancy.

Earlier this year, however, the warlords were driven out of Mogadishu by a puritanical and radical Islamist movement, the Union of Islamic Courts. Again the parallels with Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban movement and the overthrow of the mujahedin are obvious. As with the Taliban, the Union of Islamic Courts came from the grass roots. Ordinary people had had enough of the warlords and their militias and their failure to provide basic services and the rule of law. The Union's court system, based on sharia law, began as a way for ordinary people, businessmen and clan leaders to provide local governance and assert some control over the militiamen. Soon it was hugely popular.

Since capturing Mogadishu the Union of the Islamic Courts has pulled the rug from beneath an internationally backed transitional federal government, made up of former warlords and political leaders. This body had little support and had been unable to set foot in Somalia until recently. There is now a stand-off.

The new regime, if it can be called that, includes a number of openly jihadist and militant Islamists, and this has alarmed other countries, especially neighbouring Ethiopia and its ally the United States. Both have suggested that members of the Union of Islamic Courts are at the very least sympathetic to al-Qaeda and could even be linked to the organisation.

Ethiopia appears unwilling to contemplate leaving the Union of Islamic Courts alone and is making threats and demands. The Union in turn is warning Ethiopia not to meddle in Somalia's domestic affairs. Ethiopia and Somalia have been to war before, and there are already reports (denied in Addis Ababa) of Ethiopian military incursions. The region appears to be drifting towards conflict, and once again foreign powers, including the US, are entertaining the idea of supporting military intervention.