By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States is urging fellow members of the U.N. Security Council to agree to demands by the government in Mogadishu to lift the arms embargo on Somalia, which has been in place for the past 21 years, U.N. diplomats said on Tuesday.
The U.S. push comes after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week that the 15-nation council should consider lifting the arms embargo to help rebuild Somalia's security forces and consolidate military gains against al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants.
The Security Council imposed the embargo in 1992 to cut the flow of arms to feuding warlords, who a year earlier ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre and plunged Somalia into civil war.
"I think we'll come down in terms of having probably a political lift of the arms embargo but retaining some controls," said a senior Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.
"What the Somali government partly wants is a political signal that they are now a sovereign government and we're supporting them, rather than a trusteeship," the diplomat said. "They say the bad guys are getting weapons and the good guys are not."
A U.S. official said Washington was merely backing a request the Somali government and African nations have been making.
"Somalia, countries of the region, and the African Union have asked the Security Council to review the structure of the current arms embargo," the official said. "The United States supports that request."
It was not clear what a "political lift" of the embargo would entail, though diplomats said it may involve easing arms import restrictions on Somalia while ensuring that a strict monitoring mechanism remains in place.
Diplomats said Britain and France have been reluctant to support ending the arms embargo. The Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group, which monitors compliance with the sanctions regime, has also opposed the idea of lifting it, U.N. envoys said.
Those who oppose getting rid of the arms embargo say Somalia's security sector still includes elements close to warlords and militants, an allegation the Somali government rejects.
"There are no Somali warlords that threaten peace and stability in Somalia," the alternate permanent representative for Somalia, Idd Beddel Mohamed, told Reuters. "They are normal citizens now, members of parliament. The embargo must be lifted."
Somalia wants help strengthening its poorly equipped and ill-disciplined military that is more of a loosely affiliated umbrella group of rival militias than a cohesive fighting force loyal to a single president.
There are 17,600 U.N.-mandated African Union peacekeepers helping battle the Islamist rebels in Somalia. The AU mission's mandate is up for renewal in March, which is when the changes under discussion, if approved, would take effect.
"There's no guarantee there will be a lifting of the arms embargo but it's something the U.S. wants," an envoy said.
Several diplomats noted that Ban's recommendation to end the embargo was so weakly worded it was barely a recommendation at all. The wording was: "the Security Council may wish to consider the repeated request by the (Somali) government for lifting the arms embargo."
A diplomatic source said the recommendation did not appear in earlier drafts of Ban's report but was in the final version. It has happened before that secretary-general's reports on various issues have been amended before publication in response to complaints from U.N. member states.
Another diplomat said U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice did not ask Ban or any other U.N. official to recommend in his report that the arms embargo be lifted.
AU troops from Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Ethiopia are battling al Shabaab militants on several fronts in Somalia and have forced them to abandon significant territory in southern and central areas of the Horn of Africa country.
The militants, who merged with al Qaeda in February last year, launched their campaign against the government in early 2007, seeking to impose sharia, or strict Islamic law, on the entire country.
The U.N. Security Council is also considering a call to permit the export of stocks of charcoal from Somalia. It banned the sale abroad of Somali charcoal last February in an attempt to cut off al Shabaab's funding. Diplomats said the charcoal export ban would likely remain in place.
The Security Council's Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, an independent panel that reports on compliance with U.N. sanctions, said charcoal exports from southern Somalia in 2011 generated over $25 million for al Shabaab.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)