By Sudarsan Raghavan
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 8:46 PM
MOGADISHU, SOMALIA - Somali militants linked to al-Qaeda briefly asserted control over Mogadishu's most strategic road Saturday, escalating their efforts to overthrow the U.S.-backed transitional government in a region where Islamic radicalism is gaining strength.
Never have the radical al-Shabab militiamen attacked so near Somalia's halls of power as they have last week, bringing them closer to their desire to create a Taliban-like Islamic emirate from which to export jihad abroad.
Saturday's attack triggered an intense gun battle on the Muka al-Mukarama, a vital artery that connects key government ministries and the presidential palace to the airport. The fighting sent hundreds fleeing their homes and trapped men like Mohammed Ali in the crosshairs of war.
The 22-year-old policeman fired a volley of bullets at al-Shabab fighters crouching in an alley connecting to the road. Bullets cracked back like thunderclaps. A mix of surprise and pain spread across Ali's boyish face, as blood oozed from his shattered foot, turning the road a dark crimson.
"We warned you not to fire your rifle," yelled a comrade, as others risked a similar fate to drag Ali to safety.
Next to them, soldiers and policemen stood against a wall of shuttered houses and stores that shielded them from the bullets whistling overhead. Scores of civilians who fled homes around the Dubka intersection huddled with them.
No one dared to go to the intersection, where al-Shabab fighters were firing on anyone attempting to cross the street.
"We are getting weaker and weaker every day," lamented Col. Ahmed Mohammed, a burly commander dressed in camouflage fatigues.
Many of the soldiers had received only one month's salary in the past eight months. For this, they would not risk their lives.Overrunning areas
Over the past week, during Islam's holiest month of Ramadan, al-Shabab fighters have pressed on this ocean-side capital. The militia has grown increasingly ambitious since orchestrating last month's twin bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala that killed more than 70 World Cup fans.
The militants have overtaken neighborhoods once controlled by the government. On Monday, they vowed an all-out war to eradicate the government and drive out a contingent of 6,000 African Union peacekeepers that protects it.
The next day, two al-Shabab suicide bombers attacked the Hotel Muna near the presidential palace, killing 31 people, including members of parliament and civil servants.
The Muka al-Mukarama was a logical target. There was only one African Union outpost on the long thoroughfare between Mogadishu's commercial center and the Dubka intersection.
Lined with cafes, travel agencies and money transfer shops, the road is indispensable for Mogadishu residents. The militants have attacked the road before, but never with the intensity seen Saturday.
The assault began in the morning, as the militants took over buildings near the intersection and started to fire at passing vehicles.
By 10 a.m, they controlled the Dubka intersection, effectively dividing the capital. Most residents stayed home, but the few who ventured out were forced to take detours over tiny, mud-filled roads to cross the city.
The road was deserted, save for the lone souls fleeing from their homes or running from the bullets that punctuated the eerie silence of what was once the capital's busiest street.
More than 10 bullets pounded the pink wall of Hassan Abdulqadir Farah's house. He gathered his five small daughters and whatever belongings they could pack into a small white minibus. His neighbor Hassan Ahmed and his five children crowded into the minibus as well.
"I can't live with my children here," said Farah, a tall man who nervously glanced at the intersection. "The war has reached our front door."Soldiers' plight
By 1 p.m., African Union peacekeepers arrived in white trucks and armored personnel carriers, affixed with large machine guns. They promptly began to pound the militants with a thunderous, jackhammer rhythm. At the end of each volley, the militants fired back with their AK-47s.
None of the civilians huddled against walls appeared to mind that Somalia's soldiers and policemen watched from the sidelines.
"When you ask the soldiers why they are not fighting, they reply, 'We have no bullets, we have no salaries,' " said Said Yusef Abdullah, 22, who fled his home and was searching for a place to sleep this night. "I don't blame them."
Col. Mohammed said the international community should do more to help the government. His soldiers, he said, lacked ammunition and weapons. Then he said the United States should not let the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers during a flawed U.N. peacekeeping mission in 1993, depicted in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," limit its engagement with Somalia.
"They must forget this pain and realize that we share a common threat coming from international terrorism," Mohammed said.
By 2 p.m., the African Union vehicles had left. The peacekeepers had erected concrete roadblocks and positioned themselves at the Dubka intersection. The militants had been pushed back, but not far. Few on the road expressed confidence that the peacekeepers could contain them.
"They don't know the streets, and they fight from their trucks," said Farah Hussein Gimali, a civil servant, who lives near the intersection. "Al-Shabab will simply return in the night."
The gunfire did not stop. A bullet struck the hat of an old man, who was so shaken he sat down on a stoop and stared blankly at the road.
"Cross, cross," people yelled at others across the road, as bullets whistled through the air.
Police spokesman Abdullah Hassan Barrisse, who was near the intersection, attempted a positive assessment, declaring that "the situation had returned to normal."
Minutes later, an al-Shabab bullet narrowly missed a man's ear. He ran fast, clutching the right side of his head.
Then Ali, the policeman, was shot. He stared glumly at the intersection as his friends placed him on the back of a police truck.
Gimali, his face lined with anxiety, stared there, too. He worried that he would have to move his aging parents if al-Shabab attacked again. As for others on this day, the road had taken on a much greater significance for Gimali.
"The relationship between the government and this road is sacred. They need it to survive," he said. "If we lose this road, al-Shabab will push us to the ocean."