|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives|
Somalia: A New Actor On The Stage
Ahmad Wehlie (left) and Omar Jama, two members of inland’s Somali community, who have broadly welcomed the rise of the Islamist militia but are worried about the intentions of Mogadishu’s new rulers
A street scene in downtown Mogadishu, most of which is now in the hands of the Islamic courts militia
The last stronghold of a US-backed warlord alliance, the Somali town of Jowhar, was captured last week by an Islamist militia whose leaders pledged to establish Sharia courts, cementing their victory after more than four months of fighting, residents said.
Mogadishu, June 20, 2006 – Columns of heavily-armed militia aboard pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns -- known as “technicals” -- patrolled the town about 90 kilometers north of the capital Mogadishu, which they also captured earlier this month.
“We have captured Jowhar and we are now planning to establish a new administration and establish Sharia courts as soon as possible”, declared Sheikh Hassan Dir, one of the Islamist militia commanders.
Residents confirmed that the city had fallen, saying the death toll could not be as high as previously feared since civilians had had time to take cover, being aware of the impending raid.
Thousands of terrified residents, who were trapped inside the town as fighting raged, started emerging from their homes to assess the damage. A few hundred others, who managed to flee before the fighting erupted, started returning.
Residents said the Islamists, who now control a large portion of Mogadishu, had been well prepared for seizing Jowhar from warlord Mohammad Dheere, a member of the US-backed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT).
Since the fighting erupted in Mogadishu in February, at least 350 people have been killed and more than 2,000 others wounded, many of them civilians as the Islamic courts battled to oust the warlords who have ruled Somalia for 15 years.
The rival sides ignored numerous appeals from United Nations and United States for a truce, pledging to keep fighting until their objectives were achieved. It was not clear last week whether the warlords had accepted ultimate defeat or would regroup and attempt to reclaim their territories.
The warlord alliance was created in February with US support in a bid to curb the growing influence of the Islamic courts, hunt down the extremists they are accused of sheltering and disrupt feared plans for new terrorist attacks. At least three terrorist suspects, including some of the accused in the Al-Qaeda-claimed 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya, are thought to be in Somalia.
Washington has never publicly confirmed or denied its support for the alliance but US officials have told reporters they have given the warlords money and intelligence to help to rein in “creeping Talibanization” in Somalia.
The support is controversial and has been denounced by the country’s largely powerless transitional government.
Jowhar, once a temporary seat of the Somali transitional government, fell a day before members of the new Somalia Contact Group formed by the United States prepared to meet at UN headquarters to discuss the future of Somalia, a country of 10 million.
On the same day that Jowhar was seized, the 275-member Somali Parliament, sitting at Baidoa 250 km, south of Mogadishu, approved the deployment of an African peacekeeping force in the country, a step opposed by the Sharia courts movement.
Fears of Taliban-style takeover ‘probably overblown’
As the Islamists cemented their gains, analysts commented that fears of a Afghanistan-style takeover of Somalia by an African version of the Taliban militia may be overblown.
While echoing the fall of Kabul in 1996, the seizure of most of Mogadishu by Islamist fighters differs in significant respects and the prospects for Somalia becoming an Al-Qaeda haven are far from clear, they said.
There are long-standing concerns that the anarchic Horn of Africa country may become a hotbed of Muslim extremism, particularly among American officials convinced that Somali Islamists are harboring Al-Qaeda operatives and other foreign fighters.
After 15 years of anarchy, they say Somalia is fertile ground for the seeds of radical Islam planted by even a few extremists, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Somalis are moderate Muslims.
But Africa analysts, diplomats in the region and aid workers with experience in Somalia said the Islamists’ apparent defeat of the US-backed warlord alliance was unlikely to herald the rise of a new Taliban, as in Afghanistan. “We have to be careful when we compare the two contexts”, said one Somalia expert who spoke to journalists on condition of anonymity.
“There are similarities and differences”, he said, before listing one similarity -- Islam representing “a religious alternative to chaos” -- and several differences, not least of which is Somalia’s clan-based society.
Others agreed, stressing that Mogadishu’s Islamic courts are not a unified collection of hard-line clerics, but instead a mosaic of clan chiefs, imams of various religious tendencies and merchants fed up with chaos.
“The Islamic courts are a heterogeneous movement”, said Suliman Baldo, head of the Africa Program at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “There are radical and moderate tendencies.
“There are courts that have provided services and brought order, while others with a more extremist agenda have been a source of worry for the US”.
To fully consolidate their control of Mogadishu, the Islamists must break down clan rivalries and identities that have been at the heart of the Somali identity for centuries, Baldo said.
“They have to find a means of reconciling the clans that are at loggerheads in the capital and manage the city”, he said, adding that even if the movement succeeds, the outcome will be uncertain.
“It is too early to say what orientation, moderate or extreme, it will take”, Baldo said, adding that much would depend on who succeeds the current moderate chairman of the Islamic courts, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad.
But a Western diplomat who follows Somalia closely from his base in the capital of neighboring Kenya said the extreme wing -- “jihadists” -- would probably lose out to moderates. “The jihadist trend is among the minority”, the diplomat suggested. “Even though they are well-armed, they are very few”.
Ahmad has sought to allay American fears about the Islamists, saying his group was purely religious and not political, denying charges they are harboring extremists and planned to forcibly impose Sharia law.
But there have been conflicting messages from other top clerics who have moved quickly to establish at least three new Islamic courts on once-secular territory formerly controlled by warlords.
Mogadishu’s most senior imam, Sheikh Nur Barud, last week declared holy war on “infidels” and their “godless” supporters, referring the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism and the United States.
The alliance was set up in February with the help of the United States to curb the growing influence of the Islamists, who have moved steadily to fill the power vacuum left by a lack of a functioning central authority.
Washington has given the warlords cash and intelligence information in a bid to root out the Al-Qaeda members and foreign fighters it says are present in Somalia and prevent the country from becoming a haven for terrorists.
But its support may have backfired and instead given the Islamists a common cause to rally around -- foreign intervention, something that fiercely proud Somalis have always resisted.
Source: Monday Morning