Somalis Flee Town as Warlords Prepare for Battle

By Mohamed Ali Bile
Thursday, June 8, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia, June 7 -- Scores of residents fled the town of Jowhar on Wednesday, fearing a bloody offensive for control of the secular warlord stronghold by Islamic militiamen who seized the capital two days ago.

Residents said the warlords were preparing to defend Jowhar, about 60 miles north of Mogadishu, the capital. Their fighters were being reinforced with allies defeated in Mogadishu and the strategic town of Balad, which fell Sunday.

"There are so many fighters and weapons in Jowhar," Abdi Warsame, a farmer, said by telephone. "Some people have started fleeing Jowhar for fear of the fighting. Most people are saying they have no option but to support whoever takes over Jowhar."

Gunmen loyal to Islamic, or sharia , courts seized Mogadishu on Monday from a self-styled anti-terrorism coalition of secular warlords, widely believed to be backed by the United States. Their victory came after fierce fighting in which about 350 people had been killed since February.

Islamic militiamen said their forces, camped south of Jowhar, had been ordered to prevent planes from landing at the town's airstrip to prevent warlords from escaping.

Political analysts said that if the Islamic militia captured Jowhar, it would control most of southern Somalia, raising questions about whether it would help install a weak interim government in the capital or set up a rival administration.

The government, too weak to enter Mogadishu, has been based in the provincial town of Baidoa since February.

Ali Abdikadir, a resident of Mogadishu, said a family member of a senior Islamic cleric told him the militia had a government in waiting.

"The day they take over Jowhar, they will announce their government," Abdikadir said. "I don't think they plan to cooperate with the interim government."

The Islamic victory dislodged secular warlords from Mogadishu for the first time since they ousted military ruler Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, but clan fighters vowed to reclaim lost ground.

The United States, which has shied away from direct involvement since a humiliating 1994 exit of U.S. and U.N. troops, has refused to discuss reports that it is funneling $100,000 a month to the secular warlords but says it will support anyone fighting terrorism.

The chairman of the Islamic Courts Union, Sharif Ahmed, appeared Wednesday to back away from comments made at a rally in which he vowed to turn Somalia into an Islamic state.

"Socialism was tested as a way of ruling the world but failed, democracy has been tested and is failing; the only way now is to try Islam," he said. "But it's up to the people to decide."

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