By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 16, 2006
NAIROBI, June 15 -- The leader of Somalia's increasingly powerful Islamic militias sent a letter to the United States this week asserting that they would assist international efforts to prevent the fractured, chaotic country from becoming "a transit route or hiding ground" for terrorists.
The letter, dated Wednesday and sent to the State Department and the embassies of several other countries, gives a direct though conciliatory response to concerns by U.S. officials that the Islamic militias harbor terrorists linked to attacks across East Africa, including the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
In the three-page letter, Sharif Ahmed, chairman of the loosely organized confederation of Islamic militias that took control of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, last week, compared international terrorists such as al-Qaeda to the brutal warlords who had ruled the city since 1991.
"Our communities have been subjected to terrorism longer than any community anywhere else in the world," he said in the letter. "Some of our leaders' families had the unfortunate experiences of loved ones being kidnapped, tortured and murdered at the hands of the warlords and criminal gangs during the last decade. We feel the pain of all people who had to face tyranny of terrorists and organized criminals. Our commitment in this regard is steadfast."
Meanwhile in New York, the United States met with key African and European governments to forge a new international strategy on Somalia. The meeting of the so-called International Contact Group on Somalia marked a renewed effort by the State Department to engage on Somalia.
The group, which included representatives from the United States, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the European Union, issued a communique after the meeting that urged all Somali parties to begin negotiations with the country's U.N.-backed but largely powerless transitional government. It also vowed to step up support for the government and press for greater access for aid workers.
Diplomats said Sweden would host another meeting next month.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazier said after the meeting that the group would strive "to increase the profile of Somalia as a destination for more assistance, more support."
Frazier sounded upbeat about the willingness of Somalia's Islamic militias to accommodate the international community. "They have clearly signaled to us that they are someone that we can work with," she said.
Frazier defended U.S. dealings with the secular warlords, who portrayed themselves as part of an anti-terrorism alliance and enjoyed U.S. support.
"We've never supported anyone to fight anyone else," Frazier said. "We have supported trying to get information from whoever we can get information, about particular terrorists like Harun Fazul, who was indicted for attacking our embassies. And we will continue to seek informtion from any and every party to try to get these guys turned over."
The issue of terrorism in Somalia has loomed over the political and military developments there in recent weeks. As residents of Mogadishu have signaled support for their new rulers, Western countries have expressed fears that the militias are a reincarnation of the Taliban, the former leaders of Afghanistan who practiced a severe form of Islam and allowed Osama bin Laden to set up a base.
The Islamic militias, which Thursday continued extending their control throughout southern Somalia, grew out of a decade-long effort to bring order to Mogadishu in the absence of a federal government. The courts relied on Islamic law, or sharia , and banned pornography, cut off the hands of thieves and ordered public execution of murderers.
But in the past week, the militias have mounted what amounts to a public relations campaign, portraying themselves as moderates interested in bringing peace and security to their country.
The letter, the Islamic militias' most detailed statement yet about their intentions, included promises that a civilian police force would soon be installed and that former militia members would be demobilized to work on such public works projects as street cleaning and tree planting. A letter sent last week to foreign governments said the militias wanted "a friendly relationship with the international community."
The mayor of Mogadishu, Mahamud Hassan Ali, warned in an interview Thursday that only a rapid, massive infusion of cash and other outside help could prevent the Islamic forces from tilting toward extremism and turning Somalia into a haven for terrorists.
Ali, who was born in Somalia but moved to Minneapolis in 2000, was appointed mayor of Mogadishu by Somalia's transitional government. He said last week's victory by the Islamic militias had delivered the best chance for peace and stability in 15 years.
Ali disputed suggestions by U.S. officials that Mogadishu harbors terrorists but said extremist forms of Islam could appeal to the city's disaffected, largely uneducated youth. Preventing that, he said, would require that significant rebuilding efforts, financed mainly by the West, begin in the next two months.
"Somalia could become the biggest place for al-Qaeda or anybody else," he said in an interview in Nairobi, a regional political and economic hub where he has spent the week seeking help from diplomats.
The courts that brought Islamic law to Mogadishu also could become more severe in their punishments, he said.
If Somalia is neglected and left as it is, he said, "sharia may get strong."
Staff writer Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.