By CHRIS TOMLINSON
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.
"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.
"The moderates in the Islamic Courts Union, who follow the old school of thought, were only interested in kicking out the warlords and turning the city over to the transitional government," Jamal said.
"The radicals, mostly educated in Saudi Arabia, however, enjoy most of the power right now" and want a strict Islamic government.
The radicals see clan politics as their biggest obstacle to Taliban-style rule, Jamal added.
For example, secular warlord Muse Sudi Yalahow, while defeated militarily, has been able to rally his Abgal clan in northern Mogadishu to denounce the Islamic courts as just another clan-based militia, not a religious order. Abgal elders have called on Sheikh Ahmed to quit the union and "rejoin his clan."
Competition for power and resources between the dozens of clans and sub-clans has been the cause of most of Somalia's problems since rebels overthrew dictator Mohammed Siad Barre in 1991.
The deaths of 18 American soldiers in 1992, made famous in "Black Hawk Down," were the result of a U.S. attempt to prop up a U.N.-backed government by taking out a powerful clan warlord.
The United Nations withdrew from Somalia in 1995, leaving the warlords to divide up the country and to extort as much money as possible from its 8 million citizens. After the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. agents began working informally with some of the secular warlords to monitor terrorist activity and snatch al-Qaida suspects using the country as a rear base for attacks on Western targets in Kenya and Tanzania.
U.S. officials said recently that Islamic leaders in Mogadishu are sheltering three al-Qaida leaders indicted in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The same al-Qaida cell is believed responsible for the 2002 suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya, which killed 15 people, and a simultaneous attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner over Kenya.
Earlier this year, though, the United States covertly began cooperating with an alliance of secular warlords fighting the Islamic militia in an attempt to root out terrorists. But now that the Islamic militia controls nearly all of southern Somalia, the United States has adopted a more conciliatory tone.
The United States said Friday it was inviting European and African countries to a meeting in New York next week on ways to deal with the Islamic militias. The gathering will mark the inaugural meeting of what will become a permanent mechanism for interested nations to devise common strategies on Somalia, known as the Somalia Contact Group.
Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer will head the U.S. delegation to the meeting. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said a goal of the meeting will be to support the transitional government.
Jamal and Prendergast both agree that this is the only way the United States can engage Somalia without provoking more of the anti-American sentiment created by U.S. cooperation with the warlords. With the secular warlords struggling to maintain enough forces to merely survive, the transitional government offers the only substitute for a radical Islamic republic in Somalia.
Associated Press reporters in Mogadishu, Somalia, contributed to this report.