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Opinion: Somalia slides

Civilians are caught between Al Shabaab and US-backed forces in a ravaged state.

Members of the hardline Al Shabaab Islamist rebel group hold their weapons in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, Jan. 1, 2010. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

NEW YORK — The Somali war widow shuddered as she recounted how Al Shabaab insurgents jailed her for a week and whipped her 185 times, doling out lashes during prayer calls. She received this punishment for selling cups of tea.

Al Shabaab routinely gives women lashes and a night in jail for selling tea or other activities that bring them into public contact with men. This woman got a particularly rigorous beating because she sold tea from an area of Mogadishu, the capital, that is controlled by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

“The whip had three strands and cut like a knife,” the woman told me when I met her last fall in the Dadaab refugee camps in northeast Kenya. She said a masked Shabaab member flogged her even as she pleaded with him: “I am not a government sympathizer. I am just a poor mother. ... When people buy tea from my shop I cannot tell who is who."

Stories like this are shockingly routine in Somalia, where the beleaguered, U.S.-backed TFG is pitted against powerful insurgents including Al Shabaab, a radical Islamist group with some ties to Al Qaeda. While Al Shabaab has yet to demonstrate that it could turn Somalia into a terrorist safe-haven or stage attacks abroad, the group’s abuses in vast swaths of the country it has captured since late 2008 are already ample cause for concern.

So far, attempts by the U.S. and other international players to stem Al Shabaab’s rise have been ineffective and have in some cases increased the suffering of ordinary Somalis. The need for international players to chart a new course assumes new urgency as the dysfunctional TFG struggles to mount a new offensive to take over the capital. Recent efforts by the U.S. and the European Union to advise and train TFG troops are little guarantee of success against the more effective rebel forces, or of fewer civilian deaths.

Al Shabaab has grabbed world headlines for several suicide bombings that killed scores of civilians. In interviews with dozens of newly arrived Somali refugees in Kenya, I heard of other horrifying actions that the militant group tries to justify as a strict interpretation of Shariah law — decapitations of people it deems to be spies or apostates, stonings of adulterers, amputations of the limbs of thieves and forced recruitment of young adults and children.