MOGADISHU, Somalia – Somali army recruits are using sticks instead of guns as they train for combat against battle-hardened Islamist rebels. With the army lacking equipment and training, Somalia's prime minister said an offensive the government has threatened to launch for months will be gradual instead of a blitzkrieg.
The offensive, which has been repeatedly delayed for months, would be the government's biggest attempt to restore control over an anarchic nation where an Islamist insurgency has taken root and whose coastline is dotted with pirate lairs. Hundreds of extremist foreign fighters have flocked to this African country, which experts fear could become a launching pad for attacks on the West.
Officials familiar with the offensive's planning said the delays are partly due to the army's lack of equipment, training and a reliable system to pay its soldiers — problems the European Union hopes to address by training 2,000 troops under a plan it approved Wednesday.
U.S. diplomats have been pressing Somali leaders to detail the goals of the assault against the al-Shabab insurgents as they figure out how the U.S. can help. U.S. officials said the Pentagon is considering dispatching extra surveillance drones and other limited military support. Some surveillance drones can already be heard over the capital of Mogadishu at night.
Pouring cold water on perceptions that the offensive will begin with an all-out assault, Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke told The Associated Press it will be a slower expansion of the small area under the government's control.
"It is not a big push. It will be gradual and well-planned," Sharmarke said in the interview Wednesday.
During recent training, recruits ran hunched over the burning sand while others shouted 'bang bang' as they sighted down sticks, providing imaginary covering fire. They hurtled through the dunes to ambush imaginary jihadists, carefully checking those playing dead for documents before they called in kills on invisible handsets.
Maj. Samuel Wasswa, the Ugandan officer in charge of training at al-Jazira, the government's main military base, said the recruits need to learn how to set up ambushes, evacuate the wounded, fight in built-up areas and simply learn better discipline. The trainers themselves need better equipment and accommodations, he added.
So far international efforts to help train soldiers have been patchy: African Union instructors in the main government camp are desperately short of equipment and sporadic international training outside the country has been uncoordinated.
The EU military training — due to begin in Uganda in May — is the most concerted effort by the international community to rebuild the Somali army since the central government collapsed nearly two decades ago and the army dissolved into feuding militias. The EU said it will work in close partnership with the U.S., U.N. and African Union to retrain the Somali army.
"We hope this plan can be a turning point for Somalia," said Somalia's state minister for defense, Yusuf Mohamed Siyad. "This is the twentieth year of anarchy and people are tired."
At Camp al-Jazira, nearly 2,000 soldiers and their families share 50 torn olive tents. Many sleep in the sand under the thorn trees. There's only one water source — a well with a generator-powered pump — no fence and no clinic. Pay is sporadic at best.
"It's really bad for morale," said soldier Mohamed Duhul.
A previous U.N.-backed plan to train a Somali police force was suspended after the men's wages were stolen by their commanders and up to 90 percent of the force deserted with their uniforms and weapons. Donors then insisted on payment procedures monitored by international auditors but as a result of red tape only 50 of the men at Camp al-Jazira have the identity cards necessary to draw their money, said Gen. Ahamad Buraale, who oversees the camp.
The payment plan has also been slowed by militia leaders who fear that a national army could weaken their clan-based forces or who want the payments to go to their own fighters instead. Fighters who aren't paid may defect to the Islamists. Siyad says who were trained with foreign funds have done so already.
International donors, America and Italy chief among them, pay the salaries of about a third of Somalia's 9,800 soldiers. The EU also pays some police.
Somali officials say they are in no rush to start the offensive because the government recently signed an alliance with a powerful Sufi militia, and the two Islamist factions — Hizbul Islam and al-Shabab — are now assassinating each others' officials.
Furthermore, public discontent with hardline Islamists is growing due to their harsh punishments, such as amputations and stonings, and suicide bombings that have killed innocent civilians. The EU training, the officials hope, will also improve their chance against Islamist forces.
But E.J. Hogendoorn, a Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group, said it's unclear if the government can capitalize on any gains.
An official five-page plan to rebuild the capital speaks vaguely of creating jobs, the return of the international community and establishing law and order. The government only controls a few blocks of the city but so far is not providing any of the services in those areas.
Most difficult of all, the government must try to overcome twin problems lying at the heart of Somalia's bloody history: clan divisions and a tradition of retribution. As the recruits trickled back into their tattered tents at al-Jazira, a soldier heard that his 14-year-old daughter had been stabbed in a Mogadishu market.
A group of recruits, disregarding protests of their commanders and instructors, headed to the market to seek revenge.