Nairobi — The return of United States marines in North Eastern Province has raised eyebrows among the local Muslims amid fears that the province is likely to be used as the launching pad for the wider war on terror.
The last time the marines were there, they spent the upward of Sh200 million on health, education and water for the impoverished residents.
After a hostile reception and boycott of their humanitarian services, residents said the marines wormed their way into their hearts with goodies.
Their unexpected arrival in a convoy of trucks with sophisticated military and engineering equipment caused a stir in Garissa town.
"We thought we had seen the last of them when they left the province late 2004 after completing the humanitarian projects," said Mr Hussein Issa, a Garissa branch Narc chairman.
"Now that they are back, it seems they have a special attachment to northern Kenya - probably due to its proximity to Somalia," he added.
Rumours abound on their mission
Rumours are rife about their mission. Some residents are convinced that the marines are out to track down Al-Qaeda sleeper cells in Somalia.
Others think the marines are on their way to Somalia to protect the ailing Transitional Federal Authority of Somalia from the increasingly powerful Union of Islamic Courts, which are perceived to be sympathetic to the Al-Qaeda cause.
The rare spectacle when the Americans landed in town caused commotion as hordes of curious residents milled around the Garissa Military Barracks, where the marines have made temporary base.
Ironically, the last time the marines were in town, the Government was forced to publicly declare their mission after the predominantly Muslim residents ejected them from a Garissa hotel.
During the incident, the marines were forced to abandon medical and veterinary services to the residents. There were claims that their drugs could cause infertility.
The residents feared that the drugs were meant to reduce and subsequently wipe out the Muslim community.
Residents held street protests
The propaganda was even spread in local mosques. Many residents took the fears seriously and stayed away from a free medical camp at the Kenya Red Cross Society camp.
Residents held street protests and invaded a hotel where some of the marines were residing. They pelted guests with stones.
The Provincial Commissioner, Mr Abdull Mwassera, convened a leaders' meeting to dispel the residents' fears.
The leaders later softened their stance against the marines, but demanded infrastructural development.
The United States government later repackaged the charity and instead opted to rehabilitate and improve public institutions in the region.
Some of the projects the marines undertook included the Sh8 million renovation and fencing of Wajir District Hospital. They also donated Sh18 million for the construction of Bute Girls Secondary School, rehabilitated facilities at Modogashe, Bura and Mbalambala secondary schools to the tune of Sh2.5 million each and sunk wells in some locations.
Soldiers said to be on a humanitarian mission
Last month, they showed up with heavy trucks. Unlike their previous visit, there were no ceremonies to welcome them.
The soldiers - in their twenties and donning military fatigues - this time round arrived in batches, perhaps to conceal their numbers.
They usually left the town after dusk with local Administration Police officers in tow.
Herdsmen in the district have reportedly fled whenever they encountered the marine's convoy snaking through the rangeland in some sites they intend to sink wells.
The North Eastern Provincial Commissioner, Mr Kiritu Wamae, was last week forced to call an impromptu public meeting to dispel the negative perception about the presence of the troops in town.
He insisted that the marines were on a humanitarian mission in the region and were working in partnership with the Kenya Army officers.
Wamae said the soldiers planned to drill 10 boreholes in Garissa District.
Claims of recruitment of local youths to fight in Somalia
Critics, however, cast doubts on the explanations.
The presence of the American soldiers in North Eastern Province has raised speculations that they may be on a mission to raid suspected terrorist cells in neighbouring Somalia.
Some think the borehole project was designed to hoodwink locals to welcome the troops so that their main mission could sail through without any hitch.
The return of the Americans in the province coincidentally came barely a fortnight after Wamae revealed that the Islamic Court Unions (ICU) was using some local leaders to recruit youth from the province for mercenary activities in Somalia.
He told a Kenyatta Day meeting in Garissa that the Government was aware of the recruitment. He disclosed that he had a list of youths recruited for a " holy war" in Somalia.
His remarks elicited mixed reactions. Some religious leaders demanded an official apology in a week's time or hold street protests to demand his removal.
Chairman of the Council of Imams and Preachers, Sheikh Hassan Amey, led the local Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (Supkem) in denouncing Wamae's claims, saying they portrayed locals in bad light.
War on terror
Mandera Central Member of Parliament Mr Billow Kerrow echoed similar sentiments and said the ICU had the goodwill and backing of the common Somalia nationals and had no business looking for Kenyan youth to fight their own wars.
Wamae challenged his critics to prove their claims and declared that he had no apologies to make.
"In my career as an administrator dating back to my days as a District Officer I have never and will never apologise over any public remark I make on behalf of the Government because I speak what I know and I have established," he said.
The soldiers also showed up when Western focus had shifted to Somalia over concerns that ICU had links with some people in the wanted list of suspected terrorists.
It is believed that ICU leaders - including Mr Hassan Turki who the West say had a hand in the August 1998 simultaneous bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam - was hosting terror suspects in the war weary country.
A senior US counter terrorism commander with the combined joint task force (CJTF) in Djibouti recently said attention had shifted to the Horn of Africa to police the Somali coast, East Africa sea board and lower Middle East following the September 11 terrorist attacks in America.
Concerned over flow of arms into Somalia
He disclosed that the 1,500 troops and warships are responsible for Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles and Yemen.
The sources also intimated that military and civilian staff of CJTF were involved in humanitarian and civil works and allayed fears that the marines had their designs on Somalia.
"US forces harbour no designs on Somalia although Washington is concerned about the flow of arms into country," the commander said.
He further told journalists that Washington had no evidence to the effect that ICU had connections with Al-Qaeda terrorism network.
The official said that past US assessments of the Somalia situation and the region has been inadequate.
"America does not have sufficient knowledge of the (Somali) people and hence needs a better understanding of the region," the official added.
The US and Ethiopia have accused ICU leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys and commanders Adan Hashi Ayro and Sheikh Hassan Turki of having links with Al-Qaeda and sheltering masterminds of the 1998 and 2002 bombings in East Africa.