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Somalia could be the next Afghanistan

The country's main protagonists, including Islamic fundamentalists with suspected links to al-Qaeda, deeply mistrust one another, and have contradictory objectives

By Harry Sterling

Fears are increasing that radical Islamists in Somalia intend to impose their puritanical views on that violence-racked nation following the seizure of the capital Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia by Islamic militias.


Such concerns were recently heightened when Islamists opened fire on a crowd in a cinema watching the Italy-Germany World Cup football match, resulting in two killed and others wounded.

The gunmen purportedly were members of the Islamic militia controlled by the Union of Islamic Courts. Although they reportedly will be tried for the killings, their action is seen by some as a worrisome indication that radicalized Islamic elements could try to impose their fundamentalist views on Somali society. (Public floggings of individuals convicted of minor crimes by Islamic courts have reportedly already taken place.)

The Islamic Courts began introducing Sharia law in areas under their control, including bans on cinemas in many locations, and on broadcasting the World Cup because it carried alcohol advertisements.

But like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Somalia's Islamic Courts initially claimed that their goal wasn't to seize power for themselves, but simply to end violence and return their country to peace and stability.

However, can they be believed?

It's a question countries confronting Taliban and al-Qaeda extremists in Afghanistan and elsewhere -- including Canada -- have reasons to be concerned about.

Considering the escalation of fighting in Afghanistan and increasing Canadian casualties there, the last thing the international community needs now is yet another country offering sanctuary to Islamic extremists, becoming a launching pad for further global terrorism.

The United States mistrusts the Islamists and covertly funded an alliance of Somalia's secular warlords, who have been in a showdown with Islamic militias. But most warlords have now been driven out of Mogadishu.

American mistrust of the Islamic Courts increased following the announcement that a hard-line Islamic cleric, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys -- on a U.S. list of those allegedly linked to al-Qaeda -- would head a legislative council of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council, the new name for the Union of Islamic Courts.

Despite warnings that the Islamic Courts intend to turn Somalia into a hard-line Islamic nation, its ostensible chairman, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a former teacher and reputed moderate, insisted they have no intention of imposing a Taliban-style Islamic state.

However, the appointment of Sheikh Aweys has re-ignited fears concerning the potential radicalization of Somalia, especially his demand that "any government we agree on would be based on the holy Koran," a position at variance with the UN-backed transitional president, Abdullah Yusuf, who previously fought Aweys's Islamic radicals in his Puntland stronghold.

In contrast to the widely detested warlords, the Islamic Courts portray themselves as based on the Koran, not clan affiliation. (However, most of the 11 courts established in Mogadishu reportedly are connected with the powerful Hawiye clan.)

The U.S. says it won't deal with Sheikh Aweys because of his alleged ties to al-Qaeda, an accusation he denies. The U.S. has asked the Islamic courts to hand over Islamic extremists in Somalia allegedly involved in the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

Interestingly, like the Taliban, Somali Islamists originally received backing from local merchants desirous of ending violence in their country; funds from Saudi and Gulf state sources reportedly are behind their military successes.

Warlords insist the Islamists harbour al-Qaeda supporters and would turn the country into a haven for Islamic radicals. There have been reports of radical Islamists ordering men to grow beards in accordance with their puritanical interpretation of the Koran.

While warlords have lost their main urban power base, paradoxically some are also part of the UN-approved transitional government negotiated by clan leaders.

Abdullah Yusuf claims the Islamic Courts were only able to seize the capital because of backing by international Islamic extremists. Some Islamists, including Sheikh Aweys, say Ethiopia helped Mr. Yusuf defeat Islamic forces in Puntland.

Although Somalia's interim prime minister, Ali Mohammed Ghedi, originally supported dialogue with the Islamists, he criticized them for breaking a June 22 ceasefire they agreed to by renewed fighting against warlord remnants holding on to pockets in Mogadishu.

Prime Minister Ghedi and President Yusuf are clearly at a decided disadvantage compared to the well-financed and armed Islamists, since the interim government has no separate armed forces, only Mr. Yusuf's personal militia.

This is why President Yusuf wants foreign peacekeepers in Somalia, a move Islamists oppose, especially given the prospect of expanding their own power.

Sheikh Ahmed has warned gunmen aligned with warlords that "any group that tries to fight the Islamic Courts will be destroyed. The Islamic Courts have overcome the infidel stooges."

Notwithstanding the June ceasefire, many highly contentious issues stand in the way of a peaceful settlement, particularly the future of the Islamic militia itself and role of the Islamic Courts in supporting the new government.

How the interim government, clan-based warlords still controlling militias, and the Islamic Courts deal with these seemingly intractable issues will be crucially important, especially given uncertainty over who controls the Islamic militia: Sheikh Ahmed, the supposed moderate, or Sheikh Aweys, allegedly linked to al-Qaeda.

In such a tenuous situation where the main protagonists deeply mistrust or loathe one another and have contradictory objectives, the likelihood of a compromise agreement isn't overly promising.

What happens in coming days could determine if peace and security can be restored in Somalia or whether that war-ravaged nation will become a further battleground between Islamic extremists and their rivals.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.

The opinions contained in this article are solely those of the writer, and in no way, form or shape represent the editorial opinions of "Hiiraan Online"



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