Somalia's Islamic Militias Reaching Out to the West

Abdullahi Yusuf, center, president of the transitional government, leaves a meeting in Nairobi where regional leaders agreed to impose travel bans on secular Somali warlords.
Abdullahi Yusuf, center, president of the transitional government, leaves a meeting in Nairobi where regional leaders agreed to impose travel bans on secular Somali warlords. (By Karel Prinsloo -- Associated Press)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

NAIROBI, June 13 -- The Islamic militias that took over the capital of Somalia last week are seeking to solidify their rule while reassuring Western leaders that they do not intend to impose an extremist, Taliban-style government on that battered East African country, diplomats, analysts and militia officials say.

In a coordinated effort including private conversations and public declarations, the Islamic Courts Union is portraying itself as a moderate force capable of stabilizing a blood-soaked land that has endured 15 years without a central government.

A letter sent by militia leaders to foreign governments said they want "a friendly relationship with the international community." The chairman of the militia group, Sharif Ahmed, has made conciliatory comments in interviews with several Western journalists and invited others to visit Mogadishu, long among the world's most dangerous cities but now transformed to peacefulness, militia officials say, by their rule.

"It is my pleasure to invite you to came to Mogadishu and see it yourself what we have achieved," Ahmed said in an e-mail to Western journalists based in Nairobi.

Abdurahman Osman, a Somali-born U.S. citizen representing Ahmed and the Islamic militias, said in an interview here: "They want to open up. They want the world to come to them."

This contrasts starkly with initial reports that the loosely organized militias are dominated by religious fundamentalists bent on delivering a purist vision of Islamic law, including the banning of certain films, the chopping off of robbers' hands and the public execution of murderers.

That image was enhanced by reports over the weekend that militia members in Mogadishu had shut down public viewings of World Cup television coverage, deeming the broadcasts decadent.

The Islamic Courts Union is a coalition with roots dating to the mid-1990s, when religious courts brought a semblance of order to Mogadishu, an impoverished seaside city of 1.2 million people, after the United States and the United Nations ended a troubled military intervention and nation-building experiment and abandoned Somalia to the rule of warlords.

Among the backers of the courts were Islamic extremists, including Hassan Dahir Aweys, who U.S. officials say was an associate of Osama bin Laden and who today is suspected of harboring fugitive members of al-Qaeda.

According to widely circulating reports, the CIA has backed secular Somali warlords in recent years, paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars to help track suspected terrorists. U.S. officials speaking publicly have neither confirmed nor denied this, but the reports have gained wide currency in Somalia and the region.

The triumph of the Islamic Courts Union over the secular warlords on June 5, following months of fighting that killed more than 300 Somalis, has been seen as a defeat for the United States.

The United States and other Western powers have been reassessing the militias, recognizing that the warlords are unlikely to regain power in Mogadishu. Many diplomats acknowledge the popularity of the Islamic Courts Union and say it is not clear whether moderates or extremists such as Aweys are in charge.

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