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Somalia opposition forges mixed deal
At a meeting in Eritrea, various groups opt for armed resistance but elect a moderate Islamist to head the alliance.
ASMARA, Eritrea,Following a week of walkouts and heated arguments, an unlikely alliance of Somalian opposition groups found an ideological middle ground Friday, electing a moderate Islamist leader after agreeing to omit a reference to "jihad" from its charter.
But as it wrapped up nine days of talks in this Eritrean capital, the newly formed Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia also opted for a hard-line political strategy, essentially declaring war against Somalia's United Nations-recognized transitional government and the Ethiopian troops supporting it.
Alliance leaders pledged to unify insurgent groups in Somalia and called upon all citizens to join its armed resistance.
"It is a national duty as well as a religious obligation for all citizens," the group said Friday in a statement.
The alliance includes disparate factions of Somalis from around the world, including ousted lawmakers of the transitional government, Islamic sheiks and members of the diaspora now living in Europe. Also included in the alliance are Islamic fighters with the militant group the Shabab, which has claimed responsibility for many of the recent bombings and assassinations in Somalia.
On the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, some people expressed anxiety over the prospect of new fighting between the government and the alliance.
"We hope the international community will put pressure on these two groups to share the power," said Faruq Mokhtar, 30, a school principal. "Waging a war is not in the interest of civilians."
Somalia has been without a stable and functioning government since 1991. The transitional administration's forces, with help from Ethiopian troops, seized control of Mogadishu last December from the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious and clan leaders. But after nine months of occupation by Ethiopian troops, Somalis are growing increasingly frustrated by the current leadership's inability to quell an Iraq-style insurgency that has killed hundreds and displaced nearly half a million people.
Conditions in the Horn of Africa nation are rapidly deteriorating. UNICEF warned this week that more than 13,000 malnourished children are at risk of starvation because aid groups cannot deliver enough food to the restive country.
Officials in the U.S. and Somalia condemned the new opposition front, saying it includes "terrorists and extremists."
"We can't accept any alliances or political conspiracies that aspire to create trouble again in Mogadishu," Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Gedi of told reporters in Mogadishu.
This week U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer said the alliance included "terrorist elements," citing members of the Shabab and former Islamic Courts Union Chairman Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, who the U.S. claims has links to Al Qaeda.
"We encourage legitimate opposition figures currently in Asmara to publicly distance themselves from the extremist elements that have participated in the formation of this alliance and who continue to foster violence in Somalia," State Department spokesman Gregory Garland said.
Some alliance leaders said they shared concerns about extremist factions, but insisted they would not eject anyone.
"We can't denounce them because we might need them," one delegate said of the Shabab. "To defeat the Ethiopians, we need every fighter we can get."
In an interview Friday, Aweys denied links to terrorism.
"I'm a politician who wants to free my country from foreign interference," he said.
He also defended the Shabab, saying the youth group was instrumental in defeating warlords who ruled over Mogadishu and in bringing the Islamists to power for a time. He described them as freedom fighters using guerrilla tactics to battle foreign troops.
"When you fight against an enemy in your own country, you will use whatever is available," he said. "I'm a military man. We will use everything we can against the Ethiopians."
Aweys said his role in the alliance had not been determined. Asked whether he would help lead its military wing, Aweys smiled and said, "Wherever they ask me to go, I will go."
The election of Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed as chairman of the new alliance was intended as a signal to the international community that the group would not be dominated by religious hard-liners, organizers said. Ahmed, a co-founder of the Islamic courts, has been described by the U.S. as a moderate who could bridge Somalia's feuding factions.
"We will not have a Taliban-style government," said Zakariya Mahmoud Abdi, an alliance spokesman.
Islamists control 76 of the 191 seats in the alliance's central committee, short of a majority. When Islamic courts members inserted a call for "jihad" in the group's charter, secular politicians and members of the diaspora staged a walkout until the wording was changed to "support the struggle."
But even as the group sought to convey a moderate image, leaders said they would move quickly to organize a force to attack Ethiopian troops in Somalia. They said scores of alliance leaders plan to sneak back into Somalia to begin recruiting and forging ties with anti-government clans.
"We warn Ethiopia to withdraw immediately," Abdi said. "It is now or never, and in a few weeks they will not have a route to withdraw."
It remains to be seen whether the alliance can muster support in Somalia. Some anti-government clan leaders have expressed reservations, saying the opposition group suffers from some of the same flaws as the transitional government.
"We aren't supporting any group," said a leader of one prominent clan that has opposed the transitional government. "We will support them when both sides come together."
Special correspondent Lutfi Sheriff Mohammed in Mogadishu contributed to this report
Source: Los Angelese Times