Somalia's Future Hinges on Victors' Laws

The Associated Press
Saturday, June 10, 2006; 2:41 PM

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Islamic militants in Somalia have succeeded where the United Nations, the United States and a gallery of warlords and clan elders failed: They have, for now, brought peace to Mogadishu.

But having defeated a U.S.-backed alliance of secular warlords, they must unite a country whose political, religious and clan divisions have rendered it lawless, destitute and a hideout for al-Qaida terrorists and criminals for 15 years.

Success may depend on who prevails among the victors themselves: religious moderates who want to restore traditional Somali society or those seeking a strict, Taliban-like Islamic republic.

"These guys are battling internally to decide whether to go for a draconian, sharia law-based administration or whether they're going to be generally laissez faire," said John Prendergast, a senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflict zones.

"If they come down hard on social and political rights, you're going to see a backlash against them."

The country they are fighting over is in dire shape.

Mogadishu _ the capital where an estimated 1.2 million people live and made famous by the book and movie "Black Hawk Down" _ has degenerated into a huge, looted shanty town since the last effective central government collapsed in 1991.

Public buildings have been dismantled brick by brick, and people live in improvised tents on the old foundations after being driven from their homes by often senseless violence.

Most families cannot afford to send their children to the few formal schools that exist, so they attend ad hoc training led by local Islamic clerics. An entire generation has little knowledge of the outside world.

What they do know of the outside world may be what their elders have told them about Western intervention, some of it disastrous. Identity is based on family and clan, with little national allegiance.

For Mogadishu's young men, many of whom are illiterate, a career as a freelance gunman working for a warlord has been the best way to guarantee a regular meal and a ration of khat, an addictive, semi-narcotic plant chewed by many Somalis. These militiamen strike terror in average Somalis, sometimes robbing, raping and killing with impunity.

Public support for the Islamic Courts is high because they have brought a semblance of justice and security, though some worry about the consequences.

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