Islamist Rebels Threaten Somalia's Government

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 18, 2009

NAIROBI, May 17 -- A major offensive by Somalia's Islamist rebels is posing the most serious challenge yet to the country's latest central government, reviving long-standing concerns that the chaotic Horn of Africa nation could fall entirely to militants with alleged ties to al-Qaeda.

Ten days of heavy fighting across the bombed-out capital of Mogadishu and other areas has pitted the Islamist rebels -- now operating openly with hundreds of fighters from the United States, Britain, Pakistan, Chechnya and other places -- against the fragile government of President Sharif Ahmed, a widely respected moderate Islamist once vilified by U.S. officials but now regarded by Washington as Somalia's last, best hope.

Momentum has been swinging back and forth between the government and rebels for days, but on Sunday it seemed to be with the rebels, who include several leaders who U.S. officials have said maintain ties to al-Qaeda. In a major blow, they took a key government stronghold, Ahmed's home town of Jowhar, about 50 miles north of the capital, giving them control of major routes to the north.

The rebels have for the past year controlled virtually all of southern Somalia, where local leaders -- some Somalis call them Islamist warlords -- have imposed a harsh version of sharia law, publicly flogging people who don't attend Friday prayers and chopping off the hands of alleged thieves.

Ahmed's government, while popular with many Somalis, directly controls only Mogadishu's airport, its seaport and a small corner of the ruined city where the presidential palace is fortified by 4,000 African Union peacekeepers in something akin to Baghdad's Green Zone. Ahmed has remained sequestered there for most of the past week.

"Things look bad for the government," said one Somali analyst in Mogadishu, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by rebels, who are quick to assassinate critics. He said it would be a "disaster" if the rebels took over.

For many war-weary Somalis, the battle underway has an air of finality -- a fight that will determine whether an internationally recognized central government survives or the historically moderate Muslim nation becomes al-Qaeda's official African headquarters.

At the grass-roots level, the battle is in many ways about identity, a struggle between the sense of purpose and power that militant Islam is offering thousands of young, jobless Somali men who have known only anarchy, and the almost gravitational pull of the country's entrenched clan system and a more moderate Islamic tradition.

"The elders, the traditional leaders, the businesspeople, the moderate religious leaders -- they are trying to mobilize their people to support Sharif, saying that our identity is at stake," said Ali Said, director of the Center for Peace and Democracy, a Somali think tank operating in exile in Nairobi. "They are saying, 'We have to fight back.' "

More than 100 people have died since the fighting began, and thousands are again fleeing the capital, where young Islamist fighters roam freely. With alliances among various leaders and militias fluid, however, the fight is hardly over.

For a while, the momentum had seemed to be with Ahmed, who was elected in January and recently adopted a moderate version of sharia law in a bid to win back young Somalis who had joined the main rebel group, al-Shabab, Arabic for "youth."

But last week, favor swung back to the rebels. With their advance on Mogadishu underway, hundreds of Islamist militiamen who had been persuaded to join Ahmed went back to al-Shabab. The Somali government and the United States accused Eritrea of supporting the group by flying cargo planes full of AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons to a sandy airstrip outside the capital just before the rebel advance began. Eritrea has denied the allegations.

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