Shelling in Somali capital takes fresh toll

Tuesday, battles between government forces and Islamist militias in Mogadishu killed seven civilians. Experts say some of the militias might be open to dialogue with President Sharif.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A Somali Islamist insurgent takes position in Mogadishu, July 23. Somalia's transitional government is hemmed into a few blocks of the city by rebels bent on toppling President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and imposing their own version of sharia law throughout the country.
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With artillery shells falling in the capital of Mogadishu, fighting raging in the western part of Somalia, and civilians fleeing by the tens of thousands, Africa's most intractable war shows little sign of abating.

On Tuesday, shelling between Islamist militias and government forces in Mogadishu's crowded Bakara Market killed at least seven civilians. Fighting has already forced some 235,000 Somalis from their homes, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

This number includes nearly 12,000 who have arrived in the coastal city of Bosasso in hopes of smuggling themselves across the stormy waters of the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, a risky option that killed nearly 1,000 Somalis last year alone.

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Western countries insist that the only solution is to support the transitional government of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.

But with Mr. Sharif's supporters able to control only a few square blocks of Mogadishu, including the airport, seaport, and the presidential palace, time seems to be running out, and some experts suggest that it's time to make one last bid for dialogue with Sharif's Islamist rivals.

"The situation in Somalia is bleak, and much more problematic now," says Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa expert at the International Crisis Group in Nairobi. "We need to see some movement on the political front, some momentum toward reaching out. Dialogue is good politics. If you extend a hand to people who want to take that hand, then you can perhaps resolve the conflict."

Islamist militants not unified

The Islamist forces arrayed against the Sharif government are far from unified, says Mr. Abdi and other experts.

Much attention is given to the most intransigent among the Islamists, specifically the Al Shabab militia, which is thought to share the radical Salafist ideology of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda movement, and its harsh vision for an Islamic state under its own terms.

Al Shabab concedes that it has attracted foreign fighters among its ranks, a fact that suggests Somalia is becoming a new base for violent jihadist groups.

Yet, fighting alongside Al Shabab are other groups that have much more localized agendas, and that might be willing to pursue their goals through negotiation rather than fighting.

Among them are the former members of the Union of Islamic Courts, a government that ruled Somalia for six brief but peaceful months in 2006. Many of these fighters and commanders might be willing to join the Sharif government if he was willing to meet some of their localized demands.

Less amenable to dialogue is Sheikh Hassan Tahir Aweys. Once a mentor to Sharif, and founder of the former Union of Islamic Courts government, Sheikh Aweys is thought to covet Sharif's job, and to want to impose a harsh, Saudi-style form of Islam that is not native to Somalia itself. Backed by the Eritrean government, Aweys seems to be playing the role of a spoiler, hoping to take over if the Sharif government collapses.

Dialogue alone won't solve Somalia's conflict, Abdi concedes, but it is the logical next step in an unending conflict of attrition.

"Clearly, doing nothing, or saying 'Let's not negotiate,' is not a solution for Somalia," he says. "In a war of attrition, where no side emerges the winner, will only increase suffering."

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