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WHEN American troops landed on beaches near Mogadishu last December, facing nothing more dangerous than television cameras, the operation to restore starving Somalia was highly popular in this country and abroad.

After all, the troops were doing what the public really likes - not killing people but distributing food, protecting relief workers, fixing roads, digging wells, tossing candy bars to smiling youngsters.In those early, mostly easy days, Americans were more euphoric about the nation-building effort by Washington and the United Nations than they should have been. In anarchic, war-torn, clan-ridden Somalia, nothing stays easy.

Now, with fugitive warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid's forces and U.N. contingents engaging in urban guerrilla warfare, opinion is changing. Politicians, who often lead from behind, are starting to cry for the troops to come home, which is mistaken, defeatist advice.

Somalia began to go bad when Aidid understood that the civilian society the U.N. was trying to construct would not be his. Trained as a policeman by the Italians and as a soldier by the Russians, the warlord hopes to succeed the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, who was overthrown in 1991.

Aidid's move came June 5. In a well executed, cold-blooded ambush, his gunmen killed 24 Pakistani peacekeepers and wounded 59 others. It was atrocious defiance that the U.N. could not tolerate.

The Security Council ordered Aidid's arrest, and officials offered a $25,000 reward for him. On July 12, U.S. helicopter gunships blasted an Aidid command-and-control center in Mogadishu, killing 13 people (according to the U.N.) and more than 100 (according to the warlord.)

Interestingly, the helicopter strike aroused far more international outrage than Aidid's massacre of the Pakistanis. In Rome, for instance, the Roman Catholic bishops' newspaper called the action "a vile American raid."

This attitude loses sight of a basic fact: Either the 27-nation U.N. force disarms and disbands a few warlords' gangs or they will continue to ambush peacekeepers and prevent Somalia's rebirth as a functioning society.

The bishops in Rome would do well to weigh a question of relative wrongs. Which is worse - killing a few hundred gunmen (and unfortunately some innocent bystanders) or allowing them to resume a civil war that starved to death 350,000 Somalis in the year before the Americans landed?

Outside of Mogadishu, the capital that is still tense and dangerous, the U.N. reports good progress. Official and private relief agencies are feeding about 1.7 million of Somalia's 6.5 million people. Crops have been planted and, after rains, are coming up. Schools are being reopened and children immunized.

Not listening to the voices of retreat, the U.N. is bringing in 5,000 fresh troops from India and Malaysia. They are to be deployed in Mogadishu and could tip the scales against Aidid's forces and those of rival Gen. Mohamed Ali Mahdi.

U.N. forces now conduct three kinds of military operations. In Bosnia, they are delivering aid and watching people getting killed without interfering. In many places they act as peacekeepers among factions that are tired of fighting. And in Somalia they try to make peace where government has disappeared.

If the world body fails to persevere and succeed in the Mogadishu snakepit, it will invite challenges by thugs in inevitable, future peacemaking missions.

B.J. Cutler is foreign affairs columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.