WASHINGTON - The United States is destabilising Somalia by funnelling more than US$100,000 ($160,000) a month to warlords battling Islamist militia in Somalia, a former US intelligence expert has said.
The US operation was seriously set back yesterday when an Islamic coalition claimed control of Mogadishu.
Former intelligence officials said the funding was aimed at stopping leaders who could provide al Qaeda with a haven in the country.
The policy had led to dissent within the US Administration, and the defeat of the warlords showed, said critics, that it was fundamentally flawed.
Officials refused to discuss any possible involvement in Somalia, but a US expert on the country said an operation to support the secular warlords involved the CIA and US military.
John Prendergast, who monitors Somalia for the think-tank International Crisis Group, said he learned during meetings with alliance members in Somalia that the CIA was financing the warlords with cash.
Prendergast estimated that CIA-operated flights into Somalia have been bringing in US$100,000 to US$150,000 per month.
The flights remained in Somalia for the day, he said, so that US agents could confer with their allies.
"By circumventing the new Government and going straight to individual warlords, the US is perpetuating and even deepening Somalia's fundamental problems, and compromising long-term efforts to combat extremism," he said.
The CIA had given its warlord allies surveillance equipment for tracking al Qaeda suspects, said Prendergast, despite no official evidence that there was an al Qaeda presence in the country.
The US appeared to view the secular warlords as a counter to the influence of Afghanistan-trained Islamist militia leader Aden Hashi Aryo.
The Pentagon reiterated the Bush Administration's position that the US stands ready to "disrupt the efforts of terrorists wherever they may be".
Claims of support for the warlords, dubbed the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism", have also been aired by Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf.
A United Nations team charged with monitoring a UN arms embargo against Somalia has also said it is investigating an unnamed country's secret support for the warlords as a possible violation of a weapons ban.
There have been three months of fierce clashes in which hundreds have been killed and injured and thousands more forced to flee their homes.
Yesterday the warlords' militias had retreated from Mogadishu with Islamist forces in pursuit. The UN began pulling staff out of neighbouring areas in anticipation of more fighting.
The gains made by Islamists, who want sharia law to be established throughout Somalia, will also have wider ramifications to the region.
Some of the warlord forces were yesterday crossing into Kenya, which has its own problems with Muslim fundamentalism, leading to fears that the Somali conflict may destabilise neighbouring countries.
The Islamist militias were consolidating their positions just outside the capital, taking over Balad, 50km from Mogadishu and a strategic staging post to Jowhar, where the bulk of the warlord troops had fled.
Some warlords claimed to be regrouping to launch a counter-attack on the capital. However, Commander Ali Nur, who has been acting as their spokesman said: "We have no immediate plans now. Most of our leaders appear to have fled to Jowhar."
The town was among those from where the UN pulled out its staff.
After fierce fighting in the past few weeks, the takeover of the capital took place relatively quietly with the capture of Daynille, the last warlord stronghold.
Daynille was the base of Mohamed Qanyare, supposedly one of the foremost recipients of US aid. He is said to have left Mogadishu two days ago after elders asked him to stop using of mortars, rockets and artillery in civilian areas.
The victorious Islamists announced their triumph in a radio broadcast. Ali Abdikadir, who lives in south Mogadishu, said: "They said they would improve security. This is good news because the warlords were always taking part in battles. We are looking forward to a life without fighting."
Others, however, were worried about the application of sharia law.
Mogadishu resident Ibrahim Rashid said: "We want peace, but not extreme laws."
President Yusuf has bitterly complained that US support for the warlords was severely undermining his chances of gaining power.
* Since 1991, Somalia has had no constitution as rivalry between clan-based militia groups prevented the emergence of central authority.
* Just before the new parliament met last February, warlords formed an "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism" in what many analysts saw as a US-funded ploy to reduce the influence of Islamic leaders.
* After winning a bloody three-month battle against warlords, Islamic militia appeared to control Mogadishu, the first time the capital had been wrestled from Somalia's powerful warlords since they ousted dictator Siad Barre in 1991.
* The interim administration has been powerless to control fighting in Mogadishu and is not strong enough to move to the capital.
- REUTERS, INDEPENDENT