WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has decided to bolster efforts to support Somalia's embattled government by providing money for weapons and helping the military in neighboring Djibouti train Somali forces, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The goal is to stem Islamic insurgent advances in the Horn of Africa, but the plan would commit the U.S. to a greater embrace of a shaky government atop one of the world's most chaotic states.
An administration review of U.S. policy toward Somalia found an urgent need to supply the Somali government with ammunition and weapons as it struggles to confront increasingly powerful Islamic militants.
Alarmed by terrorists' gains in Somalia, the administration decided it needed to do more to support Somalia's transitional federal government, officials said.
Officials said the U.S. would not conduct the training and that the U.S. military would not be in Somalia. The U.S. would provide logistical support for the training, and provide arms to the Somalis. The U.S. officials spoke about the emerging plan on condition of anonymity because the details have not yet been finalized.
But even with the administration's careful effort not to leave an American footprint in a country wracked by violent upheaval, the move amounts to a budding foreign complication for the U.S. as its own armed forces wage two distant wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The effort to bolster Somalia's tattered military and police forces faces heavy odds. Somalia has been in chaos for nearly 20 years, and the current U.N.-backed government there controls only a few blocks of the capital and comes under regular attack from increasingly powerful Islamic insurgents.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Thursday the administration was concerned about continuing unrest in Somalia. Kelly confirmed that the U.S. organized an arms shipment made to the Somali government earlier this month, but did not confirm the plans to train Somali forces in Djibouti. One official said the shipment was ammunition delivered to Mogadishu. The Washington Post first reported the arms shipment Thursday.
The "threat to the government," Kelly said, "is causing real suffering -- this kind of violence is causing real suffering for the Somalian people and it's just prolonging the chaos and preventing the country from getting on stable footing. So, yes, we are concerned."
On Thursday, Idd Mohamed, the Republic of Somalia's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, told The Associated Press that the planned U.S. effort represents a "new window of opportunity in which the two countries can coordinate strategy for peace and stability."
Mohamed said Somalia welcomes U.S. assistance in establishing his country's security forces, which he said will include $10 million in financial assistance for those forces.
Mohamed and other top leaders from the country told the House Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa that their country needs money to promote economic development, beef up their Coast Guard to battle piracy and resolve humanitarian crises as people flee the violence.
But, warned Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud, president of the state of Puntland, while the U.S. can play a leading role in political and economic assistance, "this does not and should not involve direct military intervention." Puntland is a more stable semiautonomous region in northeastern Somalia.
Warlords and Islamic al-Shabab militants control the countryside, which has become a growing base for al-Qaida terrorists arriving from Yemen and South Asia, U.S. officials have said. Somali pirates operating from coastal towns have hijacked dozens of cargo ships and confronted the U.S. Navy during an April standoff that ended when American snipers freed a hostage after killing three pirates.
Insurgents hold sway even inside Somalia's capital. That was evident Thursday as militants cut off the limbs of four men convicted of stealing cell phones during a public display of fundamentalist Islamic justice.
The government in recent years has depended on outsiders for protection, including more than 4,000 African Union troops in the capital and on forces from neighboring Ethiopia, which drove out the Council of Islamic Courts in 2007 and stayed in the country for two years, helping to prop up the government.
The shipment of arms was part of a series of deliveries of weapons and ammunition that are expected to be sent to African Union forces -- primarily Ugandans -- who in turn will relay them to the Somali government, the official said. Any nation operating under the auspices of the African Union in Somalia would be reimbursed for the weaponry handed over to the Somalis, the official said.
Kelly confirmed that at the request of the Somali government, "the State Department has helped to provide weapons and ammunition on an urgent basis. This is to support the Transitional Federal Government's efforts to repel the onslaught of extremist forces."
Both the U.S. military and diplomats have acted quietly in recent months to increase American involvement in Africa. A new Africa Command within the Defense Department is now coordinating aid across the continent, focused on ungoverned territories in the north and east where Islamic extremists are pressing for a foothold.
But the U.S. military does not want to be out front as the trainers, reflecting sensitivities in African nations that could view aggressive U.S. involvement as interference by the West. Instead, U.S. officials working in Africa to date have limited their efforts to aiding nations in dealing with their own internal security problems.
A chief concern in Somalia is al-Shabab, a terrorist organization whose name means "the youth." The faction has been gaining ground as Somalia's Western-backed government crumbles. The group's goal is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia
Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a moderate Islamist, was elected president in January in hopes that he could unite the country's feuding factions, but the violence has continued.
Despite continuing chaos, State Department spokesman Kelly said the administration considers Somalia's current government the "best chance for peace, stability and reconciliation."
There is also a domestic American consideration to Somalia's violent insurgency. Several young Somali-American men have disappeared from the Minneapolis region in recent months and are believed to have traveled to Somalia to fight with al-Shabab militants. One strapped on explosives last fall in a coordinated attack in Somalia, becoming the first U.S. citizen to act as a suicide bomber.
U.S. counterterrorism officials say it is a disturbing pattern, one that mirrors al-Qaida methods in Somalia and could spawn homegrown insurgents and suicide bombers inside the U.S.