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Somalia Possible Target in Terror War



WASHINGTON (AP) - Somalia is a place America once wanted to forget. A lot of U.S. soldiers never will.

America wanted a quick relief operation back in 1992 and 1993, to save Somalis from starvation. That operation sank into "quicksand," as Colin Powell put it, then the U.S. made a hasty exit after losing 18 soldiers in an ambush.

A possible new front in the war on terrorism, Somalia today is a somewhat difference place. That is to say, the chaos has taken on new hues.

What is certain is that if U.S. officials go in, they will do so with a different frame of mind. Some in the government have already been burned once by Somalia.

Mogadishu, the capital, was dangerous almost beyond description. It was a city of competing warlords, pickups with machine guns and "quat," a narcotic favored by the gunmen. A place where women and children carried guns, armed men hid behind them, and citizens insulted U.S. soldiers by showing them the backs of their shoes.

U.S. Gen. Tom Montgomery, deputy commander of the U.N. force there, called Mogadishu the "Temple of Doom."

In the fall of 1993, American and U.N. military commanders wanted to capture Mohammed Farah Aidid, the most troublesome of the warlords who had been raiding relief supplies and stirring civil war.

He was slippery, almost a phantom. A half dozen raids had failed to find him. People kept reporting false sightings. Americans code-named him Elvis.

On Oct. 3, the Americans were tipped they had a chance to get some of his lieutenants, if not him.

The setting: a building near the Olympic Hotel in Mogadishu's market district.

"If there was a hornet's nest anywhere in Mogadishu, this was it," said Army Capt. Jeffrey Struecker, a veteran of the raid. "We knew that going in."

The plan: U.S. soldiers would drop down ropes from Black Hawk and Little Bird helicopters, onto streets so narrow the rotors barely fit between buildings, so dusty the pilots could hardly see. They would snatch militia members and spirit them away in a convoy of vehicles that was to meet the choppers at the scene.

The outcome over 17 harrowing hours: a successful roundup, a sudden blizzard of opposing fire, one Black Hawk shot down, then another during a frantic rescue attempt, combat and confusion that stretched through the night, the bodies of two of the 18 dead Americans dragged through the streets.

President Clinton, by his own admission, had not given full attention to the Somalia intervention begun under his predecessor. That changed. He made immediate plans to get out.

For the United States, the Somali famine in 1992 came at an inconvenient time for a crisis. A defeated George Bush was preparing to leave office. Bill Clinton, like all new presidents, wanted a clean slate.

But Somalis were starving in great numbers - and on TV - despite months of relief flights.

A day before the great American feast, Thanksgiving, and haunted by scenes of hunger, Bush and his advisers met to decide what to do. Bush favored a strong military-backed operation. In and out, he hoped.

"We'll do it and try to be out by Jan. 19," he said, according to a detailed account of the conversation by Powell, one of the participants and then the nation's top soldier, now secretary of state. "I don't want to stick Clinton with an ongoing military operation."

Dick Cheney, true to form, gave Bush a reality check.

"The job won't be done by Jan. 19," said Cheney, then defense secretary, now vice president.

It was not. The next year, the mission turned especially deadly. On one day in June, Aidid's militia ambushed Pakistani peacekeepers, killing 24.

In response, the U.N., with the backing of the Clinton administration, authorized "all necessary measures" to take control of Somalia and bring the attackers to justice. U.N. and U.S. forces brought in more firepower and decided Aidid had to be hunted down.

U.S. commanders put a $25,000 bounty on his head.

They later found out Aidid had put a $250,000 price on them.

Clinton later regretted making Aidid a target, a decision he said was based on Powell's advice.

"I would have handled it in a different way if I'd had more experience," Clinton said at the end of his presidency.

"I had the distinct impression," says Struecker, then an Army Ranger staff sergeant, "that everyone in this task force was going to die." He is among the soldiers portrayed in the book-based movie "Black Hawk Down" opening nationwide this weekend.

Midafternoon on Sunday, Oct. 3, Task Force Ranger went into action, down the ropes and into the dust.

Rangers secured the building that housed Aidid's militia, and Delta commandos rounded up 20 men as the ground convoy arrived.

Sporadic gunfire became a torrent.

Struecker, then a staff sergeant in charge of a two-vehicle squad in the convoy, was dispatched to pick up a soldier who had fallen off his rope and been badly hurt. As they drove back to the airfield where U.S. forces were based, a soldier with Struecker was shot in the head and killed.

Meantime, a Black Hawk was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Now hundreds of gunmen were attacking about 90 stranded Americans. The vehicle convoy, unable to find the downed chopper crew, was ordered back to base with its prisoners.

Americans at the crash scene passed up a chance to fight their way out, instead hunkering down until they could retrieve the pilot's body, which was caught in the wreckage.

Another Black Hawk was hit, and crashed about two miles from the first. Americans dropped in two snipers. They died in combat after freeing the pilot - who was captured by the Somalis and later released.

Almost two hours after the operation began, a convoy of 22 vehicles set out but ran into relentless fire and turned back.

Struecker was in the convoy, his second of three trips through the melee. "I had the feeling there was a weapon pointed out of every window and every door," he said. "I was receiving fire from every rooftop and every alleyway."

It was not until close to midnight that U.S. forces and their allies could mount a sizable rescue.

A convoy with more than 20 Malaysian armored personnel carriers, four Pakistani tanks, two light infantry companies and 50 members of Task Force Ranger advanced street by street through heavy fire, finally getting the survivors back close to daybreak the next morning.

Gen. Montgomery, who has retired, had asked Washington for the tanks and other armor he saw as necessary to do the job. But Washington wanted to reduce its Somalia commitments.

A recently declassified research paper for the Air Command and Staff College says Powell, who stayed on for a while as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Clinton, relayed the request to Defense Secretary Les Aspin but "did not support it strongly enough."

Powell remembers that episode somewhat differently.

"With only three days left in my term, I was in Les Aspin's office making one last pitch to him to give Tom Montgomery the armor he wanted," he wrote in his autobiography.

"It ain't gonna happen," Powell quoted the late secretary as saying. The Mogadishu ambush happened less than a week after Powell stepped down.

Clinton's taste for foreign intervention became much more selective after Somalia. Washington did not step in firmly to stop the Rwandan massacres the next year. He later expressed regret over that, too.

Aidid died from wounds suffered in a 1996 clash with another faction.

Somalia today remains largely lawless, with a tenuous transitional government and suspected links to al-Qaida terrorists. Still, some local leaders have said they would welcome a U.S. crackdown.

So far the United States has been conducting reconnaissance flights over Somalia in a possible prelude to more direct action.

As for Struecker, he became an Army chaplain based at Fort Bragg, N.C.

"I had a strong faith already," he said. "Because of Mogadishu I have a bulletproof faith now."

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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