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[ Somalia ]
Mogadishus new rulers
After the victory of Islamist militias in Mogadishu, experts see Somalia at a crossroads. Rival warlords had been fighting for dominance in the country since the state order collapsed 15 years ago. More than a dozen attempts to restore peace and appoint an effective government failed. Fierce clashes resulted in hundreds of casualties earlier this year. At the end of May, however, the army of the Islamic Court Union succeeded in ousting the warlords from Mogadishu. According to Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert from the Davidson College in North Carolina, it remains to be seen whether the country will stabilise or not: What we know is that the victory of the Union of Islamic Courts was a seismic change in Somali politics. After a decade of impasse now everything is in flux.
Fighting escalated after secular warlords united to form an alliance against the Islamists in February. According to media reports, the USA contributed to that escalation by financially backing the warlords for more than a year. That support was supposedly meant to be a counter-terrorism measure, but there are not official confirmations. According to reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post, US embassy staff in Nairobi repeatedly criticised secret payments to the warlords, which are said to have amounted to as much as $150,000 a month. It is reported that, because of his views, Somalia expert Michael Zorick of the US State Department, who was based in Nairobi, was transferred to Chad. Observers assume that the Sharia militias would not have started their offensive at all, had the USA not supported the warlords. This has blown up in our face, frankly. Weve strengthened the hand of the people whose presence we were worried about most, John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group (ICG) told the New York Times.
It remains unclear what goals the new rulers in Mogadishu are pursuing. On the one hand, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic Court Union, declared after taking Mogadishu that they were only concerned with restoring peace and stability, but did not want to establish a theocracy as the Taliban had done in Afghanistan. On the other hand, according to the German daily tageszeitung, Sheik Ahmend justified demolishing cinemas and a dubbing studio for Bollywood films several months ago by saying that Islamic law forbids films, music and dance. The New York Times quotes Sheikh Ahmed as saying: We won the fight against the enemy of Islam. According to the BBC, other leaders have stated they will only support a government based on Islam.
An ICG study maintains that the first Islamic courts emerged in the 1990s, not from religious motives but as pragmatic reactions to state collapse and the absence of alternatives. Businessmen supported the courts, and helped them to form militias. According to the ICG, leaders authority is not based on religious beliefs but rather on Somali customary law. In this perspective, the Sharia is basically being applied in the absence of any other credible legal system. In 2004, the courts of the separate clans in Mogadishu merged to form a network in order to be able to pass sentences obeyed by more than one clan.
With growing popularity, the courts also became a platform for radical Islamists. One of the courts is led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the former head of the now disbanded Islamic group al-Itihaad al-Islamiya. According to Suliman Baldo, director of the ICG Africa Programme, moderate powers currently have the upper hand, though that may still change. Nonetheless, in Baldos view, radical Islamism has no chance of becoming established in Somalia. While religion certainly does matter to Somalis, Baldo says, their loyalties lie first and foremost with the clans.
According to Ken Menkhaus, the people are happy that the warlords have been driven from Mogadishu; but, at the same time, there is uncertainty about what kind of regime the Islamists will establish. Menkhaus believes the future of the country depends on a handful of actors who, apart from the Sharia courts, include the US administration, Ethiopia and Somalias Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was appointed at the end of 2004.
According to the BBC, TFG prime minister Ali Mohamed Ghedi has defined the Islamist victory an excellent step forward because the warlords did not want peace. Shortly after the Islamists took Mogadishu, Ghedi dismissed four ministers who had fought as militia leaders against the Sharia courts while in cabinet. However, the Sharia courts protested against TFG plans to ask the African Union for the deployment of foreign peacekeepers in Somalia. To calm the increasingly tense situation, end of June, when this issue went to press, TFG president Abdullahi Yusuf met Islamist court leaders in Sudan, where both sides agreed to end military campaigns and to hold further talks in July. (ell)