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For Somalis caught between Islamists and weak government, fleeing is only option

Sayeed Ibrahim and his brother were accused of being thieves by al-Shabab, an Islamist movement in Somalia linked to al-Qaeda. The group then publicly amputated an arm and leg. Ibrahim now lives in Ifo, a refugee camp in northeastern Kenya.

But within two years, the Islamists returned, more radicalized and led by al-Shabab, which in Arabic means "The Youth." The Obama administration and European nations are backing the Somali government with arms, training, logistics and intelligence.

Yet al-Shabab, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization, now controls large swaths of Somalia. It has imposed Taliban-like Islamic codes in a region where moderate Islam was once widely practiced. Urged on by Osama bin Laden, the group has steadily pushed into Mogadishu, importing foreign fighters and triggering U.S. concerns that the movement could spread to Yemen, across East Africa and beyond. Somalia's government controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu and has little legitimacy elsewhere.

Many Somalis say they believe the United States is guiding the war.

"We expect American helicopters to strike Mogadishu at any moment," said Aslia Hassan, 40, who arrived at this refugee settlement three days ago with two small plastic bags of possessions. "This is why we are running."

Al-Shabab's dictates

The refugees say they are also escaping al-Shabab's puritanical dictates. Western and Somali music is outlawed in the areas the group controls in southern and central Somalia. Movie theaters have been shuttered, and the watching of films on DVDs is prohibited. In some areas, the refugees say, playing soccer -- and even watching it on television -- is banned. So is storing pictures on cellphones and using Western-sounding ringtones. Only Koranic music is allowed.

Al-Shabab's religious police, often led by children, order people to put out cigarettes and give haircuts at gunpoint to anyone with modern hairstyles or longish hair, the refugees say. As a warning to those who defy their dictates, al-Shabab fighters have displayed severed heads on steel poles.

Women must sheath themselves from head to toe in abayas made of thick cloth and are not allowed to wear bras. In Mogadishu, buses are segregated, with women sitting in the back.

"Even if a pregnant woman asks to sit in the front of the bus, where it is less bumpy, she will be refused," said Dahaba Duko Ali, 35.

She arrived here last month with her seven children, evading al-Shabab checkpoints. Fearing the police -- Kenya has closed its border with Somalia -- the smugglers drove along back roads and dropped the family just over the border. Under cover of night, Ali and her children walked 30 miles to Ifo.

Ali Mohamud Raghe, an al-Shabab spokesman, said that "our Islamic religion tells us" to separate men from women and for women to wear thick abayas. The militia forbids all "the evil things that infidels aim to spread" among young Muslim Somalis.

"So music is among the evil actions," he said in a telephone interview.

Even donkeys are not beyond al-Shabab's dictates. The militia has decreed that donkeys cannot wear harnesses, nor can they carry more than six sacks. They are also segregated: Women can use only female donkeys; men must use male ones. "How can I feed my children?" lamented Hassan Ali Ibrahim, 40, a gaunt donkey-cart driver who arrived in Yemen with his eight children.

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