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Somalia's Future Hinges on Victors' Laws

"I like the Islamic courts because they work on creating a secure environment for our business," local trader Abdirahman Mohamud Ahmed said. "But I am worried that they might come up with too much taxation ... they're stubborn because they think everything they say is a holy thing from God."

The fundamentalists have raided bars and destroyed video halls showing risque films. The death penalty has been imposed for a variety of offenses.

Most Somalis welcome the stability brought by the Islamic militants, but they also support the weak, U.N.-backed transitional government currently struggling to assert its authority. They see it as a way to rejoin the international community, which most Somalis consider the best opportunity for prosperity.

Leaders from the Islamic Courts Union and the Transitional Federal Government have begun talks, but both sides have widely condemned each other in the past, leaving many wondering if they will reach a consensus or start another civil war.

"Now things are quiet in Mogadishu, but I am worried what will come next," said Jamila Issac, a woman's rights activist in Mogadishu. "If the Islamic Courts install law and order and establish an Islamic state in Mogadishu, then this means there is no transitional government and the worst case scenario is looming."

Analysts are also keeping a close eye for schisms between the 11 men who lead the Islamic Courts Union.

The chairman, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is a moderate member of the Abgal clan. An extremely influential founder is Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, a member of the Ayr clan who the Bush administration says was an associate of Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s and allegedly harbors al-Qaida bombers under indictment in the United States.

Sheikh Ahmed initially promised an Islamic republic, but has recently backtracked.

"We do not want to impose sharia law, we will accept the views of the Somali people," he said Saturday. "Somalis should decide what they want."

He also denied that any al-Qaida suspects were being harbored by union members.

Omar Jamal, an expatriate Somali who has daily contact with Somalia's leaders and is director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, Minn., said there is fierce debate within the union along ideological and clan lines. He said he expects the United States to try to exploit these differences so the moderates will prevail.

Most Somali clerics practice the mystical Sufi form of Islam, which is anathema to the radical Wahabi sect, the austere brand of Sunni Islam most prevalent in Saudi Arabia and promoted by Islamic extremists, including the Taliban. Each group advocates Islamic law, but define it differently.

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© 2006 The Associated Press