Somali President Courts Insurgents
'They Have No Option but to Accept Peace,' Says New Leader of War-Torn Nation

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 12, 2009

NAIROBI, March 11 -- Nearly six weeks into what some outside observers describe as the most treacherous job in the world, Sharif Ahmed, the newly elected president of Somalia, said his government has "opened our hands and our hearts" to Islamist insurgents in an effort to promote reconciliation over war in the conflict-ridden Horn of Africa country.

"They have no option but to accept peace," Ahmed, a widely respected moderate Muslim, said in an interview here in the Kenyan capital Tuesday, referring to the group known as al-Shabaab, which is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

The 44-year-old leader was in Nairobi as part of a round of visits to several African countries and possibly Saudi Arabia before he heads back to Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, where his new government and allied militias are battling al-Shabaab for control.

Ahmed met with Nairobi's diplomatic corps, then spent seven hours receiving a parade of visitors -- mostly exiled and displaced Somalis -- in a suite in the garishly luxurious Panari Hotel. The lineup reflected the diverse Somali interests Ahmed must satisfy: There were elders from his clan, many with their own militias; job-seeking former warlords, some of whom had grown beards to appear more devoutly Muslim; businessmen looking for deals; professors offering advice; clerics offering prayers; a family asking for a few hundred dollars to fund their trip back to Mogadishu; and a Swedish television company.

Hovering in the glossy lobby were the Somali defense minister, the security chief and the head of police. Among Ahmed's immediate tasks is shoring up militia alliances in the event that al-Shabaab -- his biggest military threat -- does not back down. He has also taken charge of a country whose budget is almost entirely dependent on foreign aid and where more than 1 million people -- including half the population of Mogadishu -- are displaced, shell-shocked and weary of war.

"To serve my people, you have to have a vision," said Ahmed, calm and studiously polite in a charcoal-gray suit. "What I will do is establish a stable and effective government by reconciliation."

Ahmed, a former high school geography teacher who studied in Libya and Sudan, recently endorsed the introduction of sharia law for the historically moderate Muslim nation, though parliament must still approve it. Many observers say the move was intended as an olive branch to al-Shabaab, and in the interview, Ahmed suggested that he would not impose the interpretation of Islamic law applied by al-Shabaab in many of the areas they control. In the southern city of Kismaayo, a 13-year-old girl was stoned to death last year after reporting to al-Shabaab authorities that she had been raped, according to human rights groups.

Ahmed said that in his view, sharia law allows for women to serve in parliament and that the democratic process -- which al-Shabaab calls a "Western" idea -- "is not inherently against Islam."

Many Somalis say they hope that Ahmed, who comes from Mogadishu's dominant Hawiye clan and enjoys the respect of influential Somali clerics, will be able to quell the Islamist insurgency -- something his combative secular predecessor Abdullahi Yusuf, who was from a rival clan, failed to do. Others say they fear that Somalia is on the verge of sinking into a religious war among Islamic factions.

Either way, Ahmed's January election by the Somali parliament reflects the apotheosis of political Islam in a country where religion has, until recently, been separate from a political process dominated by competing clan interests.

Ahmed was among the founders of an Islamic movement that gained popularity by defeating the brutal and widely despised warlords who took over after Somalia's last government collapsed in 1991. Some of the warlords styled themselves as anti-terrorists and secured the backing of the United States, which has been concerned that Somalia will become al-Qaeda's East African base.

Under Ahmed's leadership, the Islamic Courts movement managed to transcend Somalia's divisive clan politics and establish a brief period of peace and order in the seaside capital. But the movement ran afoul of the United States and neighboring Ethiopia for maintaining ties to al-Shabaab, which served as the courts' military wing and whose leaders have claimed common cause with al-Qaeda.

A U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion in 2006 ousted the Islamic Courts and installed a fragile transitional government headed by Yusuf. The move immediately spawned an insurgency led by al-Shabaab, which broke from the Islamic Courts and began deploying roadside explosives and staging suicide bombings, once unheard of in Somalia.

While Ahmed was forming an opposition coalition in hotel conference rooms in Djibouti, al-Shabaab was fighting on the ground, gaining strength and eventually helping to drive the Ethiopians out and force Yusuf's resignation.

Two years later, the group controls most of southern Somalia, and Ahmed is back in power facing a problem similar to the one he faced as head of the Islamic Courts: how to deal with al-Shabaab.

This time, though, Ahmed has the backing of the United Nations, the United States and, it appears, even the Ethiopians who drove him out.

In the interview, he rejected al-Shabaab's accusation that he is a puppet of the West, saying Somalia and international players have "mutual interests." Asked whether his election represented a shift in Somali society toward a more political strain of Islam, Ahmed said that, on the contrary, it represented a shift in the outside world.

"The way Western governments view religion's role in society has changed quite dramatically because of the phenomenon of interdependence," he said. "Attitudes are changing."

Special correspondent Mohamed Ibrahim contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company