NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenyan and Somali forces on Friday launched their long-awaited assault on Kismayo, the southern Somali seaport stronghold of the rebel group al Shabab – Somalia’s al Qaida chapter – but even if the key city is eventually captured, stability in the restless area may not soon follow.
The Kenyan coalition of forces, technically fighting as part of an African Union mission, sparred with the Islamist militants just north of Kismayo for most of the day, residents said.
An official at Kismayo University, which sits two miles outside of the city, said the troops landed by boat on a beach nearby and by Friday afternoon had pushed past the university heading toward the town. The official asked not to be named out of security concerns.
"We’ve been hearing heavy weapons and jet fighters flying over the town,” Suldan Barre, a Kismayo resident, said by phone. “Helicopters shot missiles into some buildings. I can’t tell you the number of casualties because I am telling you only what I heard. I am in my home and I can’t move outside."
According to residents, the local al Shabab radio had been calling on youths to take up arms and defend the city, and an al Shabab spokesman promised residents over the radio that the town would be protected. Mosques were filled for Friday prayers, as usual, despite the looming battle.
While al Shabab may put up a fierce fight for the city, few expect the militants to be able to hold back the incoming onslaught. But bringing a lasting solution to the bastion of radicalism, now controlled by a foreign army, Kenya, will likely prove difficult.First there is the issue of al Shabab itself, which is expected to continue the conflict in guerrilla fashion, ambushing roads and urban areas while trying to re-brand itself as against foreign occupiers.
Adding to that problem, though, will be the challenge of putting that part of Somalia under any sort of civilian rule.
Kenya has long set eyes on the southern portion of Somalia, known as Jubaland, which borders Kenya. Kismayo is the region’s commercial heart and has been al Shabab’s main source of revenue, according to the United Nations. U.S. State Department diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks noted that Kenya consistently pitched the United States and regional neighbors to support an offensive into the Jubaland area to try to prop up a more stable local administration. The cables noted that U.S. diplomats and African leaders expressed strong reservations for the plan, fearing such an action could make matters worse.
The Kenyan invasion is controversial inside Somalia. Former Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed was especially opposed to the Kenyan action, which he saw as a unilateral violation of Somalia’s sovereignty, but his prime minister publicly welcomed the Kenyan action.
Now Kenya faces a new Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was sworn in earlier this month.
The new president has been too busy putting together a government to focus on the war in the nation’s south, said Abdihakim Aynte, a Somali analyst close to the Mogadishu government.
"This is an entirely Kenyan operation. This has nothing to do with the Somali government in Mogadishu," Aynte said. "All these Somali forces – their role has been marginal in the whole operation."
Kenya, which has a large ethnic Somali population, has been hosting negotiations over the fate of Jubaland, with an aim to putting in place a friendly regional government there. Ethiopia, too, has participated, but the Somali government itself has had little say so far in the matter.
Mohamud is seen as a pragmatist, and most expect him to take a diplomatic approach and avoid a direct clash with his stronger western neighbor. Yet the president’s new electoral legitimacy gives him more leverage than his predecessor to take a stand.
At the heart of the matter is clan politics, with Kenya perceived as heavily supporting one clan, the Ogaden. A rival group, the Marehan – who have held more power in Kismayo under al Shabab – have been deeply suspicious of Kenya’s plans. That hostility increased after Kenya admitted its soldiers killed several Marehan civilians this month.
Ahmed Madobe, the head of the Ras Kamboni militia, which has been fighting alongside Kenya, says that he is confident the capture of Kismayo will bring peace, not more war.
"I know the international community does express fears about what happens next if Kismayo falls, but I have a feeling that Somalis are tired with clan conflict," said Madobe, who was participating in the talks in Nairobi.
Madobe downplayed his own ambitions in a new Jubaland administration.
"We want to see a peaceful Jubaland where people live peacefully and the rights of the people are respected," he said.
McClatchy special correspondents Abdi Ibrahim in Mogadishu and Mohammed Yusuf in Nairobi contributed.