DESPITE the heroic exploits portrayed in the film Black Hawk Down, there is no disguising that in real life the United States' attempts to pacify Somalia was an American military disaster.
The shooting down of two helicopters and the 'Battle of Mogadishu', which cost the lives of 18 American soldiers in 1993, caused the Clinton administration to pull out all the 28,000 troops it had sent to Somalia. 'Operation Restore Hope' left behind the despair of a failed state.
Now, in Washington's first direct engagement in the Horn of Africa since then, the Americans are back. In a fresh escalation of the War on Terror, the US last week carried out air strikes in Somalia. A US Spectre gunship strafed a location where al-Qaeda leaders were said to have been holed up, while US warships set up a blockade to prevent their escape by sea.
The Americans were after three "high-value" al-Qaeda operatives, said to have been responsible for earlier bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
Is Somalia about to become Bush's last war, a final attempt to demonstrate that the administration can and will hunt down al-Qaeda leaders anywhere in the world?
The US is attaching increasing strategic importance to Somalia. If an Islamic insurgency is prevented there it will be able to claim it as a successful model for campaigns in the post-Bush era, and that Iraq was just a glitch in the president's campaign to protect America.
But it is a huge gamble. Like Afghanistan, Somalia is a quagmire. Devoid of effective leadership, it fell victim to corrupt and unpopular warlords, to whom the US paid thousands of dollars to capture and hand over al-Qaeda leaders. But the warlords just took the money, and failed to deliver.
Last June the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union (ICU), captured the capital from a fragile transitional government set up by the UN.
Fearing the establishment of an al-Qaeda state, the US backed Ethiopia to send in troops, which forced the Islamists to flee the capital.
It then believed it had a unique opportunity to destroy an al-Qaeda cell cornered at the southern tip of the country. But the opportunity was missed. The strike did kill eight to 10 "terrorist targets", but the US is still pursuing the three most wanted suspects, a US official said.
As in Afghanistan and Iraq, the killing of civilians by American missiles risks a backlash from Muslims in the region.
Richard Cornwell, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, has said that the AC130 gunship was "an appallingly blunt instrument, and I very much doubt it can be used to target individuals. To kill alleged terrorists regardless of collateral damage is highly hypocritical."
Already a video apparently from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command, has surfaced calling for an Iraqi-style insurgency in Somalia.
It has emerged that a small team of US military personnel entered southern Somalia to try to determine who was killed in the air strike, the first known case of US military boots on the ground in Somalia since the disastrous 1994 mission. US officials also admit that a small American team is in the country to provide military advice to Ethiopian and Somali forces.
But an official has dismissed reports that special forces are already there.
That leaves an African "stabilisation" force, an idea backed by the UN. But African governments are not rushing to take part. Only Uganda has indicated it is willing to deploy 1,500 peacekeepers.
A senior southern African foreign affairs official said: "For us to send troops would be to enter a serious quagmire. We would be perceived to be fighting the US War on Terror. Any peacekeeping force there would lose credibility."
Already the Americans have received warnings that Islamic extremists are linking Somalia with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dr Imran Waheed, spokesman for pan-Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain, said:
"This is the latest US attempt to colonise a country that enjoys a hugely strategic location on the Horn of Africa, has the longest coastline in Africa, has huge reserves of untapped oil, gas and uranium, and a people who have shown a deep yearning to be unified under Islamic rule."
Iqbal Jhazbhay, of the University of South Africa, added: "There is strong thinking that foreign troops may not be the panacea everyone wants them to be. The history of Somalia has shown that the area is averse to foreign troops even if they are African or Muslim."
Somalia's future is wide open.
Desperate bid to halt bloodshed
Somalia's parliament yesterday declared a three-month state of emergency amid fears of a return of clan violence after weeks of war ousted Islamists.
Members of parliament in the government's interim seat of Baidoa - its home until Ethiopian and Somali troops defeated Islamists who controlled much of the south - voted 154 to two to ratify prime minister Ali Mohamed Gedi's plan.
The government, which is seeking to install itself in the capital Mogadishu, faces a huge challenge to bring peace and security to the Horn of Africa nation, which has been without effective central rule since the overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
"A three-month state of emergency has been passed. If the need arises for the government to extend the period then the president will have to ask parliament for approval," second deputy speaker Osman Elmi Boqore told parliament.
Residents fear Mogadishu could slide back into the anarchy that has gripped the city since 1991.
On Friday, warlord gunmen tried to force their way inside the presidential palace and fought Somali troops, showing how hard it will be to tame the nation. The shootout, which killed a handful of people and came as warlords agreed to merge their forces into a new national army, was the kind of clash that is commonplace in Mogadishu.
Within hours of the Islamists fleeing Mogadishu, militiamen loyal to the warlords reappeared at checkpoints in the city where they used to terrorise civilians.