There have been some very curious developments in the media today concerning two international issues of great interest – Iran and Somalia.

The basic “event” is the release of a UN mandated report from a panel of monitors who have been tasked with keeping tabs on possible violations of the UN “embargo” on the East African country [the report can be downloaded here, at the CFR]. The Iranian connection is, well, tenuous, and plenty of other countries are discussed by the monitors in more detail but, predictably enough, the Iranian prize heffer is being milked for all it’s worth.

And, one of the juiciest of all:

But I’ll get to that in just a moment.

The drift of media coverage of the report (which incidentally has not yet been delivered to the UN Security Council) is that of the “outside” forces that are destabilizing Somalia, the most egregious offenders are Eritrea, Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. Ethiopia comes in for some criticism too, but is not mentioned in any headlines that I can find. The Voice of America, for example lists “Iran, Syria..” as the prime offenders. A leader in the London Times entitled Africa’s Afghanistan states that “[the report] accuses Iran, Syria, Egypt and Libya of smuggling huge quantities of arms” – not Ethiopia, nor the U.S., nor Uganda. The Financial Times begins its report with the accusation that “Syria, Iran and the Hizbollah group, as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and Libya, have all been accused of sending illegal arms..”

These accounts are representative, save for some coverage from the Guardian and Reuters. They are all misleading and obscure the real situation in Somalia. They fail to criticize Ethiopia, the only nation which – the UN report acknowledges – has troops on Somali soil. They fail to mention either the U.S. base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti when Djibouti is named as one of the countries that has sent arms to the Islamic Courts. They fail to mention the information uncovered by Africa Confidential – and followed up here – about the activities of American mercenary companies seeking to circumvent the UN arms embargo.

The e-mails contained a passage in which one of the security contractors railed against “those fucks at the UN” – presumably meaning the monitors of the arms embargo. Now the fucks have spoken, and – magically – have given the U.S. and its hired goons a free pass.

But what does the report actually say, and is it reliable? As far as allegations against “outside forces” goes, it contains a list of shipments and contacts between members of the Islamic Courts and a list of countries which includes Iran, Djibouti, Eritrea, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kazakhstan, Yemen, Egypt and Oman. It’s key finding is that:

Information gathered during the current reporting period indicates that arms flows into Somalia, most especially to the two principal antagonists – the TFG and the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) – has dramatically increased in terms of numbers of arms, frequency of delivery and weapons’ sophistication. Arms flows have been aggressively fed by a growing number of individual states, and to a lesser degree, arms trading networks. This has been taking place in the greater context of a broad-based military build up by both sides.

Those “arms trading networks” – which could include any number of proven gun runners (Victor Bout for example) or private military contractors – are not explored again. The focus is upon state violations or, if there was any doubt – it must be presumed that the monitors ascribed a “state” origin to shipments from criminals, or para-statal organizations. That’s one major failing of the report.

One thing that has not been communicated by the media is the relative importance of just two states in breaching the embargo – Ethiopia and Eritrea. You can find a long list of the Eritrean shipments in the report – shipments which incidentally the Eritrean government denies, as do the companies implicated. If they did occur, then these acts would constitute crimes – and the Eritreans should be censured. Then again, this report is far less than a rigorous indictment. Many, if not most, of the details are introduced with provisos such as “according to information received” – which do not inspire confidence. Whether the UN monitors actually saw any of the shipments arrive, is not clear.

Whatever the truth, the U.S. government has decided to press Eritrea, and relent on Ethiopia. The VOA reported State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos who, “urged Somalia’s neighbors to avoid actions that might further destabilize the situation, citing in particular Eritrea, which has emerged as a principle backer of the Islamic Courts.”

The Ethiopian government stands accused (or should stand accused) of organizing what amounts to a three pronged intervention in Somali territory – which would constitute a far greater crime. In it’s lengthy letter to the UN team (and strangely Ethiopia sent by far the longest reply to UN allegations. The letters from the UN requesting feedback are not included) the Ethiopian government charged the UN with “fabricating” members of its army meaning that Ethiopia could not “get to the bottom of these allegations.” This may be satisfactory for the MSM, but it’s not for me.

Moreover, the Ethiopian letter then rambles off into a defense of Ethiopian “intervention” in Somalia due to the “context” of the Horn of Africa which is “currently the target of active destabilization by dangerous international terrorist groups.” It does not refer to Ethiopian troops, but does attack the “massive violation” of the UN embargo by supporters of the Islamic Courts. In many ways, the Ethiopian position is remarkably similar to the international media consensus which is, perhaps, telling.

How the Ethiopians can get away with citing the “massive violations” committed by its opponents, while the report itself lists several damning violations of the exact same embargo by the Ethiopian government – is a beautiful example of media bias at work. Here’s a short list:

  • In June 2006, the Ethiopian government signed an agreement with the PM of the Somali Transitional Government (TG) – Mohammed Ali Geidi which granted an Ethiopian airline (“Mudan”) the right to transport arms to Baidoa, the seat of the TG.
  • In July 2006, two shipments duly took place – consisting of Ethiopian arms and troops which, the report states, was “as a response to learning that Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys had been appointed head of the Majlis Al Shura (Consultative Committee) of the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts.” Hardly the invasion of Poland.
  • These troops who “have Somali features” were assigned to guard the TG President, Abdullahi Yusuf and to carry out whatever “offensive manoeuvres against any militant assault” are. Sounds awfully pre-emptive to me.
  • On 20 July, an Ethiopian convoy of 93 military vehicles entered Somalia, complete with rocket launchers. During that deployment, 3 “militiamen” were killed.
  • In September 2006, “several hundred of Ethiopian combat troops arrived in Baidoa from Ethiopia” and proceeeded to set up “training sites”
  • Between July and August 2006, the Ethiopian military began to train “militias” in the regions that they occupy.
  • The second prong of the attack is in Puntland, to the north of IUC controlled territory. After dispatching a general to the autonomous region, Ethiopia then sent “800 AK47 assault rifles, 120 PKM machine guns, 24 boxes of ammunitions and an unknown number of boxes of landmines and hand grenades.” Two air shipments were also carried out, in order to furnish the Puntland militia with rocket-propelled grenades and anti aircraft guns.
  • In September, the Puntland government confirmed that 300 Ethiopian troops were resident in Galkayo, Puntland. Their task there, to train the Puntland militia. This must be the product of an earlier meeting in which Ethiopian and Puntland officials met “to discuss the specifics of mutual defence assistance for the purpose of halting the advance of the ICU on Galkayo and Puntland. Ethiopia agreed to provide weapons and ammunition, uniforms, medicines, food, transport, military training, troops, command and control, and planning assistance.” That meeting promised 3000 fully equipped Ethiopian combat troops.

The third prong of the Ethiopian strategy has been to re-equip the “counter-terrorism alliance” which was defeated by the Islamic Courts in April this year. At the time, it was rumored to be an American creation.

These are all pretty serious violations of the UN embargo, so why isn’t Ethiopia feeling the heat like Eritrea? The answer seems to be the sexy inclusion of Iran and Syria in the report’s list of interfering “outside forces.” This has diverted attention away from the Ethiopian operations, and towards Arab perfidy, and Persian cunning.

Mmm, the media likes that cookie.

Let’s survey the accusations against Iran. First off, the snippet that “At the time of the writing of this report, there were two Iranians in Dhusamareeb engaged on matters linked to the exploration of Uranium in exchange for arms to the ICU.” Who they are, is not known. Where the information came from, is not known.

The second accusation is even murkier. I’ll quote it in full, and you’ll see my problems with it:

In the early morning hours of 17 August 2006, a large dhow containing food commodities and arms destined for the ICU arrived in El-Adde seaport, Mogadishu. Before arriving in Mogadishu, the dhow travelled from the coast of Iran to the UAE where the food commodities were taken onboard.

The arms portion of the shipment came from Iran and consisted of 80 man-portable, shoulder fired surface to air missiles and rocket launchers. In addition, there were 120 sealed boxes with unknown contents, but the wording on the surface of the boxes indicated that the contents contained medical goods.

The dhow’s captain and his assistant were reported to be from Singapore and Bangladesh, respectively. Also reported to be on board the vessel were two (2) engineers that were simply identified as Asian, and two (2) Somali businessmen from the UAE, who were responsible for coordinating the consignments of arms and foodstuffs.

Firstly, the Dhow’s captain was not Iranian, and the Captain is responsible for the cargo taken on by his vessel. Secondly, the ship docked at UAE where the food shipments were loaded. Nobody noticed the RPGs in the corner… Could not those arms have been loaded in Abu Dhabi? Of course they could.

The third direct allegation was an aid flight that transported three Iranian medics to Mogadishu. The UN “received information” that this flight also delivered a pot pourri of “sophisticated” weaponry. The Iranian government maintains that “there has been no transfer or shipment of any kind of weapons or military equipments from the Islamic Republic of Iran to Somalia.”

These flimsy accusations dominated media coverage because they were bundled up with another sexy allegation. Apparently, 700 Somalis fought with Hizbullah against Israel in the recent conflict. In a beautiful association of the Islamic Courts with both anti-semitism and Osama Bin Laden, the report maintained:

The Somali force was personally selected by the ICU, Hizbul Shabaab (Youth Movement), Aden Hashi Farah “Eyrow”. As part of the criteria of the selection process, individuals were chosen based on combat experience that might include Afghanistan.

This is some slick PR.

The Guardian is the sole voice urging us to be cautious in interpreting this evidence. As a dispatch from Xan Rice relates, “A diplomatic source who follows Somalia and asked not to be named said he feared the 80-page report could become a “very useful propaganda tool” for hawks in the west.” Indeed it would. The Islamic Courts have been neuro-associated with Hezbollah, Osama Bin Laden and the Ayatollahs.

Experts on the Horn of Africa seem doubtful:

The allegations of battlefield assistance to Hizbullah have aroused widespread scepticism. “To me it’s completely counter-intuitive,” said Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science and Somalia expert at Davidson College in the US. “Somalis, whether secular or Islamist, are parochial, and have never been animated about distant causes.”

While Matt Bryden of the International Crisis Group (which itself justifies itself by hyping up crises) says that “We need to treat many of these claims with caution until we see firm evidence.”

The Lebanese Daily Star has quoted a Hizbullah spokesman as calling the report “incorrect and silly” while it also quotes the head of the Islamic Courts, Sheikh Hassan Aweys as saying that “The UN will lose its credibility by releasing this kind of report” and he’s right.

Yet this ambiguity has not prevented mass media outlets from turning the report to their own ideological ends. The New York Times‘ Robert Worth told his readers that it “appears to be the first indication that foreign fighters assisted Hezbollah during the 34-day conflict, when Israel maintained a tight blockade on Lebanon.”

Worth did relate something of worth, however:

The panel does not say how the information was obtained. But the members had access to information from the intelligence agencies of the Security Council’s 15 current members, including Britain, France, China, Russia and the United States, a United Nations official said.

And there’s me thinking that the monitors trudged the mean streets of Mogadishu to compile their epic. No wonder U.S. firms like Select Armor and ATS Tactical have been left unmentioned. No wonder the report only goes back as far as May this year and does not probe the counter-terrorism alliance, which many said was funded by the U.S.

Make of it what you will.

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