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December 29, 2006
Notes from the Pentagon

Somalia fighting
Military sources close to the fighting in Somalia tell us that the Somali transitional federal government and the Ethiopian forces are winning battles against the pro-al Qaeda Islamic Courts Union (ICU).

However, the long-term solution is "in question" because of the determination of the Islamists and the support they are getting from radicals outside the Horn of Africa.

One former military official told us that it is hoped the Ethiopian military forces will withdraw once they have defeated the ICU forces in Somalia and the forces of the transitional federal government (TFG) can hold on.

The international community then will need to step up and "get in there and strengthen the Somali political process and provide humanitarian aid," the former official said.

"All Somali institutions are going to need to be ramped up quickly, to include police and emergency services, border controls, hospitals and medical infrastructure, commerce, etc.," he said.

"If the TFG has the agility to fill the void created by the collapse of the ICU, then Somalia and the Horn will be fairly stable. It all depends on how the TFG negotiates a settlement with the ICU."

The goal for ending the conflict is to reach a negotiated settlement between the TFG and ICU by peeling off some centrist elements of the ICU while isolating hard-line leaders such as Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, head of the ICU's legal council, and his key protege, Aden Hashi Ayro. Both are considered key allies to al Qaeda terrorists in north Africa.

Somali troops entered Mogadishu unopposed yesterday to the cheers of their countrymen.

A quick Ethiopian military withdrawal will be key to stability.

"The biggest concern for Somalis in general has been the continued involvement of outsiders within their country and I believe that if Ethiopia gets out quick then Somalia may well be on its way to stability," the former official said.

The U.S. government and military have been slow to recognize the growing danger of a new al Qaeda-aligned regime in Somalia and have done little in the way of backing the anti-al Qaeda forces, we are told.

Covert U.S. support would have prevented the Ethiopian incursion, which still may fail if extremists from Eritrea, Iran and Sudan step up support for the ICU. "Al Qaeda may seek to introduce additional forces into the area now," the former official said, noting that the support will be a key test to see how much "throw weight" the group still has left globally.

Ray of hope
Iraq's only hope for stability may be its fledgling army. While the police force appears hopelessly infiltrated by sectarian killers, the army shows promise. Some of its units stand and fight. Some of its leaders talk of defending Iraq's struggling democracy.

A firefight earlier this month in the city of Baqouba reinforces that hope. We hear that Iraqi soldiers fought well in a nighttime battle against al Qaeda terrorists. Diyala province is one of Iraq's most violent, as Shi'ites and Sunnis try to top each other in torture and slaughter, as al Qaeda conducts suicide bombings.

What is actually happening in the provincial capital is the subject of debate. The U.S. military says the city and province are functioning. Reporters say their Iraqi sources in Diyala tell of rampant violence and citizens too afraid to leave their homes.

The Maryland-size Diyala is home to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, which arrived from Fort Hood seven weeks ago. It patrols with Iraq's 5th Army Division.

Col. Dave Sutherland, the brigade's commander, talked to the Pentagon press corps earlier this month.

"Many recent reports have made it seem that Diyala is a haven for terrorism, one so violent that people are afraid to go out of their homes. The reality is something different," he said.

Then he provided a sober assessment: "Some political groups and tribal leaders are turning to terrorists and insurgent organizations for protection. This sort of unity only worsens the sectarian divide and encourages further violence. The key to security is separating the insurgents from the terrorists, and bringing the insurgents into the political process while defeating the terrorists with intelligence-driven operations."

Chinese propaganda
Adm. Gary Roughead, the Navy's Pacific Fleet commander, is disputing as "propaganda" a recent report in the official Chinese press that stated that the admiral was effusive in his praise for Chinese marines during a recent visit to China.

The official Beijing military newspaper PLA Daily reported Nov. 22 that Adm. Roughead recently watched an exercise involving Chinese marine boxing skills and was reported to have applauded and cheered. "They have such excellent skills and good physical strength! I am tired out just watching the performance, but they are still so full of vigor!" the newspaper quoted Adm. Roughead as saying to a Chinese military officer "in a tone peculiar to servicemen."

During another encounter with a Chinese female martial arts specialist, Adm. Roughead was quoted as saying to one of his female Navy aides, "Do you think you could beat this Chinese girl if you got into a fistfight with her?" To which the female officer supposedly responded, "Ha! I don't think so."

The newspaper quoted Adm. Roughead telling another group of Chinese troops: "Your team is remarkable and you have left a deep impression on me. You and the U.S. Marines have many strong points in common and are both wonderful!"

Adm. Roughead declined our request for an interview.

However, Capt. W. Scott Gureck, a Pacific Fleet spokesman, told us he "got a pretty good chuckle" out of the Chinese report. "This story is not accurate and I trust you know that it's obviously a propaganda piece from a state-run newspaper," he said in an e-mail.

The admiral did watch the Chinese demonstration but "he did not stand or applaud during the demo," Capt. Gureck said.

"There was polite applause at the end. He did say they were well-conditioned and that just watching the demonstration tired him out," he said.

Capt. Gureck said Adm. Roughead did not "gush" in his praise of the Chinese, and said instead that "polite would be more accurate."

Defense officials said the Chinese propaganda treatment of the visit is typical of how Beijing exploits U.S. military exchanges. The Chinese government is aggressive in playing down the threat posed by its large-scale arms buildup and seeks to show neighboring countries in Asia that the United States does not regard it as a threat.

Critics of the exchanges, which are being promoted by the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. William Fallon, say the program is a naive attempt to influence Chinese military behavior, and they note that China has failed to reciprocate fairly in granting the kind of access to its facilities that already has been granted to visiting Chinese military personnel in the United States.

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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