President Of Somalia Steps Down Amid Pressure

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NAIROBI, Dec. 29 -- Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf resigned Monday, conceding that Islamist insurgents had overtaken much of the country and that he had been unable to unite the perpetually fragmented Horn of Africa nation.

"Most of the country is not in our hands," Yusuf said in a speech before parliament in the town of Baidoa, describing the nation as "paralyzed."

Though there are more optimistic scenarios, many Somalis and other observers say that Yusuf's resignation will help force the country deeper into a power struggle among clans and Islamist militias, which appear to be splintering along ideological lines.

Though the hard-line Islamist group known as al-Shabab -- which the United States has designated a terrorist group -- has taken over towns across much of southern Somalia, other, more moderate Islamist groups are lining up to fight it.

On Monday, a group known as Ahlu-Sunna Wal-Jama battled the Shabab for control of two towns in central Somalia. And a new militia calling itself the Juba Resistance Movement also vowed to fight the Shabab, whose extremist version of Islam is at odds with the more moderate tradition Somalis have embraced.

"The people of Somalia reject the Shabab -- they don't want the Shabab," said Mohamed Amin Abdullahi Osman, who is allied with moderate Islamists and an opposition coalition that had pushed Yusuf to resign. "People in lower and middle Shabelle are ready to fight Shabab and take over the region," Osman said, referring to a central region in the country. "I'm sure others are the same."

Yusuf had come under increasing internal and international pressure to step down, and his announcement Monday was widely anticipated.

The 74-year old leader's administration was plagued by a relentless insurgency almost from the moment his transitional government was installed in a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2005. Yusuf's opponents accused him of ruling like the warlord he once was, encouraging clan divisions and finally blocking a U.N.-backed political settlement that many see as a long-shot hope for salvaging Somalia's first central government since 1991.

His government was never able to build coalitions and never controlled much more than a few city blocks in the capital, Mogadishu. In recent weeks, Yusuf had lost the support of the United Nations, the United States and, significantly, his Ethiopian backers, who have promised to withdraw from Somalia within days.

The most optimistic observers said Monday that Yusuf's exit would clear the way for the political settlement known as the Djibouti agreement, which promises a new government that includes moderate Islamists, clan leaders, intellectuals, businesspeople and others sidelined during Yusuf's tenure.

The hope is that a new government, along with the Ethiopians' departure, could help undermine support for the Shabab, which has made a cause out of battling the Ethiopians and is the strongest force on the ground, according to analysts.

The top U.N. diplomat for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, praised Yusuf's decision Monday, saying in a statement that "a new page of Somalia history is now open."

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